My Aga Khan Academy Years – Boots Edition

By the time I spent my ill-gotten wealth on the camera, I’d been dreaming about it for several months. On my way from Odeon Cinema, where the passenger vans from Aga Khan/Highridge dropped you off, to the bus station where I’d get onto a 111, there was a photo studio. The first floor had a shop window facing busy Ronald Ngara where you could buy film, flash, and cameras. I chose an MDx610. It came in a crispy blue box, with dark grey corners. The camera itself was made of plastic. There was a shutter button on the top right, and a sliding lever to open the lens cover on the bottom left. This was a big purchase. I knew my mom would ask where I’d gotten the money. I did not want to get into trouble. I was happy committing the crime, but had no intention of doing the time. I spoke with my cousin, Wainaina, to figure out what to do.

Wainaina lived with us at the time. He was the day-to-day manger on our family quarrying operation. He doubled as a laborer while also managing the books. As a result, he always had cash on him. I talked him into agreeing to convince my mother that he’d fronted me the money to buy a camera, and that I’d pay him back with time. Mother did not bring it up with me; if she did follow up with Wainaina, it was behind my back. I began my photography career taking portraits of quarry workers. I knew them through my cousin, and given how notoriously bad they are at repaying debt, it was important to have some sort of relationship that I could lean on when it came time to collect. Each copy was KSHS 25. Men would pose shirtless, holding steel rivets and stone mallets, or with the 30 foot hand-held drill bits used to prepare cliff walls for blasting.

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I often never got paid for my portraiture. Quarry workers are experts at getting rid of creditors.

I might have had the hardware, but the skills were still lacking. Pressing the shutter release button was easy enough. Making sure the image was properly focused, and that the lighting would not mess up the portrait was a lot harder. To get better, I began diligently perusing the photography books and magazines that our school library stocked. In one part of our library, closest to the entrance, the staff had arranged glossy copies of PC Magazine, Digital Photography, National Geographic, Reader’s Digest, Time, Economics, and Newsweek. These material was meant to complement our studies and open us to a global stage full of opportunities. It worked to varying degrees amongst the student body, but it certainly gave me a better idea of what I was aiming for in my photography. Alongside portraiture, I began to venture into landscape shots. The 35mm lens, however, was ill-suited for the kind of wide-angled composition I imagined in my head. I’d take images to document the environmental degradation in Oloolua Forest, courtesy of a rampant quarrying industry, and the resulting work came out looking weird. Instead of expansive vistas, my developed pictures would mostly have ghostly-looking bushes with objects out of focus.

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I began to venture into landscape shots.

To make matters worse, I often never got paid for my portraiture. Quarry workers are experts at getting rid of creditors. By tradition, they get an advance on Wednesday evening, and their weekly pay is calculated on Saturday afternoon. They are paid by the feet. Say they’ve cut 400 feet of 9×9 stones, 600 feet of 6×9 stones, and 250 feet of 4×9 stones. Each of these will be compensated at  different rates, with 9×9 stones fetching the highest price. As stone masons are wont to do, they let slip from their minds that they got an advance just three days before. When their weekly paycheck is tallied up, and the cash they got on Wednesday deducted, they always walk away with a feeling of being robbed. They were rather impossible fellows to please because if you ever suggested doing away with the mid-week advance ritual they were sure to howl oppression and bloody murder! What all these boils down to is that quarry workers are rather hard to part from their hard-earned cash. It must have to do with the back-breaking work they do all day, crushing rocks, and cutting quarry chips. I was not the only one to suffer this fate. Quarry workers eat 3 meals a day, at work, after breakfast in their own homes, and they fully anticipate a heavy dinner in the evening. Suffice it to say they run up a pretty tab at the lunch shacks they frequent. The understanding is that the ladies who own this establishments advance them credit under expectations of receiving an advance on Wednesday, and for all accounts to be cleared on Saturday. Since the men have to eat every day, these ladies had a better chance of recovering their debts. I only saw these fellows on Saturdays, by which time they’d be in a great big hurry to get home, take a shower, and hit the town for a round of drinks with friends and colleagues. Many of these Saturday night debacles left the fellows quite penniless by Monday morning. If you didn’t get your money on Saturday evening, you might as well forget it till next weekend. I was too often faced with this scenario that I soon came to the conclusion I’d never turn a profit from this kind of photography.

Turns out I was as unsuccessful a photographer as I was a pick-pocket. I still remember the time I got caught. I’d just replaced a wallet I’d hoped to fish some cash from. The thing was empty, so I put it back in the back left pocket, folded the pants as I recalled finding them, and turned to exit from the changing room. And that’s when several form two boys walked in. Fortunately, they found no evidence on me. Unfortunately, that did not stop them. They had very strong suspicions of what I’d been doing, and they simply ran with that. They questioned me, demanding to know whether I’d been stealing from them. I objected. They did not take kindly to my resistance. Georgie began to look unsure, maybe I really was as innocent as I claimed. Moha ignored any doubts. Stano had the most resolve in this gang of three. He wanted answers, yesterday! His open hand connected with the right side of my face. I winced, but did not give them the satisfaction of seeing my tears. They grabbed my collar and threatened even more violence. But I knew I had them; I stood my ground. Eventually they pushed me out of the changing room. I walked out silently vowing revenge.

The next morning, I went straight to the Dean of Students’ office. I knew that Stano and his buddies were often in trouble. However guilty I might have been, I resented being bullied. Combined with the fact that I always came across as a goodie-two-shoes, I knew that in a he-said-they-said contest, the school administration would side with me. The Dean of students was a 50-something Asian lady; I laid out my complaint: three form two boys had bullied me. Aga Khan was a private school, where parents paid a tidy sum to get their students a cushy high school education. Physical violence was not tolerated, not even if it was only directed at the poor scholarship kids. Dean Prajani was mad. Georgie, Moha, and Stano were summoned to her office.  I repeated my complaint. They brought up the whole pick-pocketing thing. But they had no evidence, and a long record of delinquency. I had a nice row of A’s and B’s on my report card. I won. They were pissed! And I could empathize. They had basically caught me red handed, yet they had ended up being reprimanded. All because I came across as a good boy; I never forgot the power of perceptions.

I also learnt my lesson: crime does not pay. I scrimped lunch money for my next purchase. On Tom Mboya street, there was a clothes emporium called the King’s Collection. It sold everything from colored pairs of socks, to pocket handkerchiefs, dress shirts, suits, blankets, and rain jackets. On their display window, they had a dazzling pair of brown boots. I loved those shoes, and the day I purchased them, with cash from my own savings, was so fulfilling! They had a thick rubber sole, black. The label, RENK, was embroidered in yellow letters on the outer side of each shoe. They had laces and a metal buckle. And imitation felt cushion at the top. I desired those boots more than I’d ever wanted anything else. I salivated over them. I stood opposite  the display window and imagined the kinds of adventures such boots would lead me to. I conquered the world wearing those shoes. I beat off school and village bullies while donning those boots. And, of course, I swept gorgeous ladies off their sexy feet and skinny legs in those brown RENKs. It was clear I had to own them and add them to my wardrobe. They were a good KSHS1,500. My lunch allowance was KSHS50 per day. This was going to be one long month!

 

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Aga Khan Academy – Prison Break

My parents might not have placed any silver spoons in our mouths at birth, but they did try their best to instill high morals. Essentially, even though cash was sometimes hard to come by, the little they had was acquired by honest means. One would expect their son to have inherited the same values. But alas, it was not always so.

Aga Khan Academy had a swimming pool; and in our first year, Mr. Mdogo the Physical Ed teacher, took it upon himself to teach whichever one of us villagers who still couldn’t swim. I’d of course previously done the usual accompany-other-village-boys-to-the-river thing in Kangawa. We’d undress to our undies and jump  in. Some of the kiddos actually knew enough to float and kick in the right direction. But it was such a high bravado activity, the boys as intent on getting wet as they were to wow the group of girls watching, that I normally shied away. Not to mention that we often went to Ngai Ndeithia, as the pool was called, on our way home from the forest to gather firewood. I’d already be feeling inadequate that my load was the lightest compared to the other boys, no pun intended. The last thing I wanted was to display one more area where they excelled better than myself. And there was also the potential for trouble. No one quite knew how deep the pool went, or what debris was underneath the water. Hence the aptly chosen Gikuyu moniker, God-Help-Me.

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Mr. Mdogo the Physical Ed teacher, took it upon himself to teach whichever one of us villagers who still couldn’t swim.

So Mdogo got us into the pool. We were a gang of four: Muthama, Orora, Bajaber, and myself. This was humiliating work. We were out there on the shallow end treading water, holding onto the ropes for dear life while other folks performed fish-like tumble turns. Learning to swim is like being re-born. All of a sudden you’re in a new dimension of the universe where you’re expected to keep your mouth open, breath, and kick ALL at the same time. No wonder newborns look so damn grouchy. And it was probably worse for the other three because they were all very skilled footballers; I wasn’t. I was just as likely to score past my own goalie as not. But I did have a tenacity and stubbornness when it came to “marking my man” that made me a formidable defender – when I put my mind to it. For me, swimming was a new skill; for them, every second spent inside that Chlorine soup was psychological torture designed to keep them away from their first love: the soccer pitch. I also suspect that Mato and Pato couldn’t swim, and never learnt, but they were hardened Don’t-Cares so Mdogo might just have given up! There was also a future Miss Kenya in the group of novices. But for her it made sense; soon to be clad in two-piece bikinis, it would be a good thing that she didn’t drown during a photo shoot.

That was us on the shallow end. On the opposite side, acting like they’d literally been born in water were Hussein and a bunch of form two boys. Man, those guys were good! From the effortless dive into a pool, to the strokes, to the turn around, they all made taking laps look as easy as eating buttered bread. Needless to say, I was envious. And I vowed that even if I couldn’t do a perfect butterfly, I’d at least make sure I learnt enough not to drown. So I practiced during Physical Ed: that one hour break we got once or twice a week in order to exercise our pubescent bodies. And I practiced after school. At 3:30pm, with classes over, one could go jump in the pool, as long as there was a lifeguard present. Sometimes I even practiced during lunchtime. I was slowly making headway. Even though I couldn’t do it for more than five strokes, I at least understood the concept behind bringing my head up to breath, rather than making a complete halt just to fill my lungs with precious oxygen.

I even got mother to buy me a pair of swimming trunks. Nylon biker shorts, really; blue, with some floral patterns in white, they definitely looked somewhat feminine. I didn’t let that stop me. I’d change in the bathrooms located right next to the pool. We all did. Boys had their own changing/shower space where you’d don your swimming costumes, or your soccer kit. There weren’t any lockers so we’d just leave our bags in there. It was then that I started going through people’s school bags, looking for their wallets. I’d identify a rich-looking bag, quickly rifle through the pants and pull out any cash I came across. After returning the clothes same way I found them, I’d walk out trying to act normal. I did this a couple of times without getting caught, and used the stolen money to buy my first film camera.

I’d always been into photography, and was at that time obsessed with Mo’ Amin. Amin was a legendary Kenyan-Asian photojournalist. He’d been to all the hotspots in the region, from Somalia, to Zanzibar during a coup in the early 60s. When he had his arm blown off during an assignment, he recovered, got a prosthetic, and kept on working. His tragic death in a 1996 plane crash was surreal. The Ethiopian Airlines flight he’d boarded to Nairobi was hijacked, only to run out of fuel off the Comoros coast. I would look at Amin’s photobooks and dream of travelling as much as he had. A camera seemed to be the magic wand to make that happen, and I was eager to acquire one. Getting my parents to buy me one was out of the question. I could have saved my lunch money, KSHS 50 daily, and accumulated enough for the camera. But that would have taken several weeks, and, after all, forbidden fruit tastes sweetest. I was experimenting with being a thug, and chose to go all the way in.

My Aga Khan Academy Years – The Flood

There were multiple reasons why I’d get home late, some more legit than others. For instance, there was this one weekday in 1998 when I got home at 11pm – soaking wet, tired, hungry, and so reluctant to be getting up at 5am the next morning to do it all over again! This was how El Nino came to be on everyone’s tongue.

This was an evening shared with about 120 other commuters on an old, rickety, route 111 Kenya Bus Service. It took us 3 hours to move from the terminal to Nyayo House, a distance of not more than 1 mile. It was pure torture.  Body odors went beyond overpowering. Forget personal space; there was barely enough room for everyone who was determined to get home that night. About 10 men hang on from the back and front doors. Their limbs going numb after they’d clutched a foothold for over an hour. It was a miserable experience that succinctly epitomized how derelict Nairobi as a city had become. Our dysfunctional urban infrastructure was plainly visible.

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And the rains came down hard

And yet, it had begun so well. By now, about eight months into my high school career, I’d already become adept at swinging in and out of moving vehicles. It’s a skill that comes in handy in Nairobi’s CBD. You can skip out of a bus in motion and possibly save whatever bus fare the conductor was going to ask from you. But even if you had no qualms paying your ticket, the ability to drop off at will could save you a long walk. This particular evening, I’d skillfully caught a bus as it rounded the corner onto Ronald Ngala Avenue and just past a 1930s Sikh temple. The bus kept on towards Tom Mboya St, belching a cloud of diesel smoke as it passed a photographers’ studio where I often had my film processed and developed. We swung right at the Moi Avenue intersection, crawling through a vehicular bottleneck between two very busy bus stops: Ambassador to our right, and KenCom on our left.

As always, the bus stopped at KenCom to pick up passengers. No one got off since nobody takes a bus from KBS to Kencom, but clearly tons of people couldn’t be bothered to walk down to the terminus to catch a bus. For their laziness, they were rewarded with a vehicle that was nearly always full. More often than not, by the time route 111 got to KenCom, it was standing room only, and this evening was no exception. I had managed to get one of the last seating spaces left, at the back row, squeezing myself amongst six other passengers. At this point the Kenyan transit industry was still the Wild West, and proprietors could get away with anything. Buses were packed like one of those mtumba bales that came in from abroad with second hand clothing, tight and to the brim. After all the seats were occupied, passengers began filling the center aisle. As that got jam packed, too, passengers would begin sliding into the seats. By the time the bus was considered to be a full capacity, every seat had three passengers. Never mind that it was designed for two. There’d be two people seated, and one person standing in between them. Each time the bus lurched sideways, the standing passenger would bump his or her rump into the two people behind him. Forget privacy. That was a luxury reserved for the well-to-do who drove a personal vehicle.

The bus slowly made its way out and onto City-Hall Way. The first couple of rain drops sounded like we were sheltering underneath a mabati house. The splashes were fat and heavy:  lazily landing on the roof as if to merely announce their presence, and the imminent arrival of a much bigger delegation. They were the liquid version of Kenya’s J J Kamotho and Cyrus Jirongo, sycophants who swept into dusty towns in rural Kenya to whip up enthusiasm for a Moi entourage, and attendant presidency, upon which everyone wished nothing but a quick demise. This was going to be a large gathering, as the dark, heavy and pregnant clouds had predicted all day. Our driver soon had to turn on his wipers. The sun-cracked rubber squeegeed its way across the wide glass, dutifully policing an earlier accumulation of dust. Water flowed down the sides of the bus; each braking sent a river down the front, and each acceleration a smaller stream down the back. The men hanging out the doors had given up looking brave. It was clear this was a deluge to rival all others. Ten minutes into our ride, as we all leaned left, to counter balance the vehicle’s right turn onto Parliament Road, the hanger-on’s had been transformed into a sorry bunch of bedraggled rats. There’s nothing cool about getting wet on your commute home; no come-back whatsoever when Mother Nature pisses all over your used suit, warping the already over-sized jacket into a bloated version of its former self. Newspapers, duly saved earlier that day to be shared with eager spouses later that evening, were damped onto the roadside. Soaked, and with their ink running, there was no one waiting to be lifted into the realms of middle class respectability by association with these ghostly markers of urbanity.

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Each time you thought it was over, the downpour began with renewed vigor

We painfully inched past the Holy Family Basilica on our right, glancing briefly to see if there was any salvation coming from that end. None. Even God had closed shop for the day and deserted Nairobi to its own sodden demise. It was now half past six. We’d boarded the bus an hour ago, and barely moved a kilometer since. Within the confines of nauseating body odor, someone made a comment about arriving home just in time for a quick shower tomorrow morning and the commute back to the office. We all privately digested this humor but furtively avoided eye contact. We’d obviously be home before dawn, we secretly insisted, but no one would publicly venture to predict when that would be.

We edged past the Intercontinental Hotel and Casino. Tonight, I wasn’t particularly concerned with what happened in its confines, as I did most evenings. I simply wanted to get home. Right onto Kaunda Street, and left on Koinange Street. We’d navigated three sides of the Basilica yet the main occupant was nowhere to be seen. Things were thick. The rain was now coming down in sheets. Visibility had dwindled to less than a 100 meters and our driver could barely navigate by following the brake lights in front of him. At least those private car occupants had space. We had to make do with less square footage than is allocated chickens on their way from up country to Nairobi – housed as they are in coops made of twigs and trussed up on the roof of a Mbukoni matatu. It was wet outside the bus, and wet inside from passenger sweat. We turned left on Kenyatta Avenue and the bus wheezed into the Posta bus stop. Sure the vehicle was full, but that was no reason why we couldn’t try to squeeze in one or two more commuters.

It was almost half past eight by the time we maneuvered past the Nyayo House round about. Uhuru Park had now transformed into a veritable rice paddy. Gone were the lunch time idlers who chewed on air burgers, unsuccessfully trying to quell the pangs  in their bellies with faith rather than a meal. Gone, too, were the itinerant preachers who set up shop on the pavements, promising fire and brimstone to idolaters, adulterers, and murders, but not daring say squat about corrupt government officials. Speaking of bribe-fueled politics, even Moi’s commemorative statue in the middle of the park seemed extra heavy tonight. The water coming down from the heavens had soured its usually autocratic air even more.

This was a commute for the ages. We eventually got out of the CBD and made it to a stretch of Ngong Road that had less traffic. But none of it was smooth sailing. We stopped at Milimani Courts, Kenyatta Hospital, Mimosa, Adams Arcade, and eventually Dagoretti Corner. At each stop the commuters trying to board the bus outnumbered those alighting. Folks who normally walk to and fro work tried to stay dry by catching a ride home. Needless to say, many of them were dramatically unsuccessful on both fronts.

I didn’t get off that bus till about 10:30pm that evening. And I took the road less travelled. Normally I can disembark from a matatu at Em Bul Bul and walk to my house. But with the heavy rains all afternoon, I knew I’d be facing a raging river, in the dark. Under such conditions, it’s always advisable to take the Vet route. It’s basically the next stage after Bul Bul, a little longer, but much more convenient. By the time I knocked on our door at 11pm, I was fed up with commuting to school up to here! And yes, I could look forward to doing all over again tomorrow; lucky me.

“Closing Day,” Or Chivalry on Display

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

School Shenanigans: Of Mud Slides & Football

Mud slides, on the other hand, were unsanctioned and terribly illegal. How else do you suppose we were so utterly drawn to them? Picture this. It’s 10am, on a rainy school day in May. It’s just the beginning of the 2nd school term. You’re barely back in classwork and homework mode, and in addition to that, you got rained on this AM. Your normal 35 min walk, dissolved into a series of puddles, and unsuccessful attempts to keep your shoes dry. The entire soccer field is one giant pond. Grass has overgrown after its 3 weeks hiatus from being trampled on by several hundred primary school pupils. The standard 7 boys started it. It’s always the class 7’s who did. One moment everyone is extremely languid and irritable, and the next moment there is a crowd cheering a number of daredevils achieving feats on their bare feet you could never dream of on a pair of skis. These boys are answering their true calling. They were born to perform. The sticky, grey clay soil does not disappoint. It offers them  a stage.

Mud skidding is an art as much as it is a science. The first thing you need is a slope, the steeper the better. At school, however, even a nice gentle one will do. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Once you’ve got a nice slope going, you need to flood it with water until it oozes a sleek, molten clay. Now you can begin smoothing it over. You walk back a few meters, jog, then break into a sprint, before letting your feet glide over the clay. This is a thrill like no other! Real artists can skid on one foot, and contort the rest of their bodies into impossible shapes. Real clowns, those who do it for the applause, would run, sprint, and finish off on their knees. The mud slide has now turned into an arena. The crowd now speaks as one, and they are asking for more. A bell rings in the administration block to signal the end of our morning break. It barely registers as an echo to this mob. The teacher on duty is puzzled. How come half the school seems to be missing? It won’t be long now before she makes her way to the sports field. Suddenly, like a pin pricking your finger nail, you remember that this is school, after all. That there are consequences to waltzing into class late. We all run past the teacher on duty who, knowing she can’t convict every willing observer, zeroes in on the performers. It’s not hard to identify them. They’re caked in slimy clay from head to toe. Their school uniforms are undecipherable. They may as well be in camo. She gasps and prods these muddy goblins forward. They are marched to the staff room. Aside from trying to reason with adults who have long since accepted a sedentary lifestyle, our group of artistes will also be the unwilling recipients of several strokes of the cane. The rest of their nightmare will unfold this evening, as soon as the house help or the mother spots them sneaking into the house to change out of their clay costume. And yet, all of this is more than worth their 5 minutes of glory.

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Picking team members before the game kicks off.

You didn’t wait for Physical Ed. class to get a football game going. Kicking the ball around was the default activity whenever we had more than 3 minutes of unstructured time. This could be in class, if a teacher was absent and there was no substitute; it could be during our tea or lunch break; or right after school as we all walked home. Pick-up soccer was not always innocuous. Chobo Ua was, as it names suggests, deadly. At first glance it looks like a run-of-the-mill soccer game. 2 sides are attempting to score in their opponent’s goal – usually two rocks placed a few feet apart. What made Chobo Ua a game that separated the boys from the men was that during dribbling, it was taboo to let a fellow player squeeze a ball between your legs. If you were so unlucky as to forget and let this happen,  the party responsible would quickly remind you by shouting, “Chobo!” At this point, it was best if you could invoke the cheetah inside you. The only way to escape an onslaught of slaps and punches to your back and head was to run, very fast, jumping over legs set up to trip your, or dodging arms stretched wide to hinder your escape. If successful,  you’d make your way to a previously designated safe refuge, often the fence on the other side of the sports field to give your pursuers maximum capacity to capture you. It is only after touching one of the fence posts that you were now considered clean, and could return to the game, eager to dribble the ball through the next victim so you could get your payback. Suffice it to say that many a young man’s tears were shed during Chobo Ua. I knew enough not to attempt anything that required quantities of courage I could only fantasize about ever possessing.  And yet even non-Chobo footie games could sometimes degenerate into ape-like chest thumping. This sports field nurtured dreams of masculinity and molded personalities in ways we never fully appreciated. My run-in with Mureu was one such instant. Perhaps I’d fouled him; I forget. He was, however, irked enough by my behavior to challenge me to a fight. This, during a low-key afternoon soccer game seemed wholly over the top. I went into my default, backing down from the confrontation, but kept on playing making sure to stay away from the kid out to kick my ass. Eventually we moved beyond the incident, staying in touch long after we’d both outgrown Ngong Hills Academy. At the end of term, however, knowing that I had bested him in academic standing was good enough consolation. I may not have fought back on the soccer pitch, but every test and every exam we took the rest of that school term was just one more battle ground for me to demonstrate who was really the -ish!

Strolling home from school has always been an event in its own right. The pupils from Ngong’ Hills had all kinds of daily commutes. There was Karuri, who lived literally two houses down from school. He and his younger brother went home for lunch. I’d swear they could probably smell whatever their parents or guardians were prepping for their midday meal from class! Fred had the same short commute. Fred’s family lived opposite Karuri’s house. It never ceased to amaze me, however, how these two kids somehow always managed to get to school late or after I did. It probably had to do with the fact that we become complacent when the object of our pursuit seems so close. Unfortunately for Fred, his parents moved the family two towns over when he was in grade 5. Taking public transport to and from Matasia was a pain. Even I did not envy him. There was a large group of kids whose commute was in the 10-15 min range. Mureu, Kevin, Martin, Irene, Mary, Joram, and Chris all had a pretty sweet time walking to school. I certainly wished to be in their shoes whenever it was raining. A whole bunch of kids who lived farther away from school got dropped off by their parents or chauffeurs at the entrance. My crowd had no such luck. We were clearly the students from the inner city making our way each morning into rich suburbia for our daily does of pomp and luxury. Nyamnyak, Samuel, Stella, Paul, Steve, Barbara, Anne, Esther, Jane and a few others forded rivers and summited hills daily to get to school. Literally. And I was right there with them every step of the way. There were a number of ways to get home. Sometimes I’d accompany Agnes and her elder brother and we’d walk together after school. They lived closer to school than I did, so they’d waltz through their main gate and after quick goodbyes, leave me to my fate. Bob’s house was usually empty by the time he and his elder brother arrived home from school. I’d walk in with them for a quick drink of water. And then we’d spend a few minutes petting the rabbits or doves housed in their backyard. Or I’d walk with Eric, taking a more round-about route home. I’d accompany him up their tree-shaded driveway which lay halfway up a gentle slope. Sometimes I was successful in enticing Mureu to drop by my house. Usually on Fridays when it didn’t matter too much if we got home late. He’d drop off his school bag at home and then we’d head out – stopping ever so often to pick up succulent weeds for my pet rabbits. Keeping rabbits was the in-thing, and any boy worth his salt had at least a few does and a buck. We were learning about all kinds of animal husbandry in Mr. Ogola’s Science & Agriculture classes. We could recognize Chinchillas by their grey fur coats, and New Zealand whites with the super pink eyes. Charlie came by my house, too, sometimes. He and his 2 younger siblings were a morbid fascination for me. They’d lost their mother a few months before enrolling at Ngong Hills. I couldn’t fathom what that must have been like. Their dad had taken pains to re-create the family as best he could for his kids’ benefit, but it’s impossible to replace a mother. Our friendship rested as much on my curiosity about the new apartment building they lived in as it did on Charlie’s interest in a more rural part of Ngong.

As private school kids, marked by our red and white checkered shirts, we were easy prey for village bullies. Anxiety about social mobility in the region manifested itself in many ways. Being kids, our experience involved getting waylaid by herds boys who went to local primary schools. Having got home sometime in the afternoon, the boys would grab lunch, then release the family cattle from wherever they were tethered. During the dry season, goats and cows would simply be let loose in empty fields, fending for themselves in the morning by chewing on dry maize stalks and short shrubs. The swampy area by the river always had some green grass available, even in the middle of a drought. This marsh made it ideal for juvenile herders to water and feed their animals. Come evening, if the cows were not well fed, their milk production would starkly demonstrate inadequate herding. At best, that would result in a tongue lashing. Sometimes that could easily degenerate into a spanking, combined in a mother’s mind, as it often would be, with last week’s attempts to steal from the sugar dish, unfinished household chores, and street fights with other kids. I don’t recall these kidos being more than 3 or 4. And they were just as puny as we were. What they lacked in stamina, they made up by arming themselves with sticks and knobberies. Plus they exuded this bad boy appeal, while we in our private school cocoons reacted by propitiating them and avoiding confrontation. We rebutted their “I-don’t-care” attitude with a kowtowing of our own. Like zebras, we’d approach the riverside apprehensively, expecting to be pounced upon at any moment. They got a hard-on from preying on our fear. They’d stop us in the middle of the foot path, ask us our names, our ages, whether we had any cash on us, and generally make us feel extremely tiny. If we were lucky, they’d spot an adult approaching, and they’d cut short their machismo displays with a warning that we shouldn’t use that path again. Otherwise, we were held up for more than 10 minutes, and put in our places – despite what the sparkling new uniforms suggested. At some point I decided this was all too ridiculous. And I took to carrying a nail cutter with me to school. The idea was to use the file to either scare away our tormentors, or to fight my way out of one such encounter. Still not sure what was more hilarious, the original problem, or my imagined solution.

 

In the Zone & Loving It!

Over time, I came to accept that I really enjoyed school work. This was a big deal. Acknowledging my own nerdy tendencies happened slowly. I resisted the process every step of the way wishing, instead, that I was more macho. In the first and second grade, thankfully, I had not yet developed such inhibitions.

My Standard 2 class teacher, Miss Grace, groomed me to self-confidence. This was despite my very reserved nature. Her and I came to an understanding where I’d do extra homework and she’d review it next time we met in class. Taking on parts of the syllabus we hadn’t tackled in our lessons,  or completing more than the assigned homework assignments felt great. The more I practiced my math and English skills the better I got, and this increased my sense of accomplishment. I could clearly tell that I was good at school. This compensated for many things. For one, I was pretty mediocre at many of the activities boys my age engaged in. I couldn’t slay birds with a catapult, score goals in soccer, or swim at a pond in our neighborhood river. Although tall, I was still kinda puny, and had no fighter spirit in me. But the hours I spent hurdled over grammar exercises wiped all those inadequacies away.

Being a private school, our curriculum often meandered from the government regulations adhered to by public institutions. Nowhere was this more apparent than in our English classes. We read from, and worked through, overseas grammar textbooks with glossy hard covers. These texts were imported and cost a pretty penny. Consequently, I’d often spend the first half of the school term borrowing my friends’ copy of Better English or looking over their shoulder. My coping mechanism, other than enviously wishing I had access to all the resources my peers did, was to make the most of the few times I could get my hands on a book. More than once I’d stay behind at my desk during Physical Ed, finishing my homework assignments using a classmate’s textbook. This way, I could hand it back to her when she returned after an hour spent running, jumping rope, or playing hide and seek in the school’s outdoor gymnasium: a grassy field. Other times, Tr. Grace would let me take home her Haydn Richards’s Junior English. I have a really fond place in my heart for her and Tr. Ones, my grade 3 class teacher.

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It’s not until many years later, when I was completing my Kenyan Certificate of Secondary Education, as well as the International Baccalaureate, that I knew the luxury of having all my textbooks provided for. In retrospect, this is really how education should happen, but back then it simply seemed magical. Free textbooks? Sign me up! Through college and graduate school, I wouldn’t have been caught dead without my course books. In addition  to signaling me out as an unprepared student, I always felt that sharing texts with my colleagues drew unnecessary attention to my socio-economic background. Now, as I stand in front of, and conduct, my own courses, I cannot fathom student behavior when they appear in class empty-handed. It’s bad enough that they show up in a literature class without the primary resources – kinda like turning up at the lab without your lab coat, long pants, and closed shoes. Yet to make matters worse, my students will simply sit, taking no initiative to get their hands on a copy. As one colleague after another reads a page from the day’s assigned text, the student in question will keep squirming. Finally, when I ask them to read – naturally, I must put them in the spotlight to passive-aggressively point out their showing up in my class unprepared – they’ll murmur something about not having a book with them. Argh! Often, I’ll notice that 1 or 2 students are staring off into space as the rest of us reads and I’ll enquire where their texts are. “I don’t have my book today.” I will inwardly roll my eyes at this juvenile behavior, before asking them to move and share with a peer. Clearly, these kids lack my own prowess at finding resources by hook or by crook. That’s a luxury I cannot identify with.

More than once, after our hot cup of tea around 10am, I’d head back to class to wrap up a few more math or English comprehension passages for Tr. Ones. A few hours later, after the rotation of dishes that made up our lunch menu – ugali and beans, rice and beans, boiled potatoes and cabbage – I’d make my way to the dreaded Ngong Hills Academy lavatory facilities before heading back to class. Mother had brought home a thick, bound writing pad. I carefully split each page into two with a straight line down the middle, and proceeded to cram it with extra grammar activities. Each pupil had 2 exercise books, one for classwork, and another for homework. It made sense for me to have a third that compiled my own solitary attempts through the syllabus. Sometimes there’d be play: a game of cops and robbers. With thumb cocked, and  the two-finger barrel pointed at an adversary, we’d recreate last night’s TV episode of Tausi, Superman, or Renegade. But I was just as likely to be found sitting alone, working through some work of fiction. The NHA school library was actually well-stocked, for its day. It had, unfortunately, more been designed as a lockable room to store valuable resources, than as an open space when students could freely interact with books. One might have needed an ID or a teacher’s permission to walk in, I forget which. A ridiculous regulation from when colonial Kenya policed its subjects’ access to knowledge. There was a long boardroom-style table in the middle, with about 15 to 20 chairs around it. The walls, however, were a sight from heaven. Floor to ceiling shelves filled with books. It smelled like paradise. And not even the devilish librarian, who’d much sooner that we’d not stepped into her domain could ruin the atmosphere. In any case, it was easy to forgive her. She was sharply dressed, in her early twenties, and fascinating to our 10-year-old eyes. One collection in the library held stories from the United States about a young black girl. On the one hand, these were the rather expensive books our greasy hands were only permitted to handle with extreme care. On the other, the texts must have been the first attempts at representing diversity. They were barely captivating, despite their foreign setting, and more often off-putting for their prosaic nature.

Football was a fully-sanctioned playtime activity. Boys would bring home-made balls to school in the morning. The compressed rolls of  plastic bags were wound together so tight, they actually bounced. Depending on the skill of the fellow who made it, the outermost layer would be a web made of red and yellow tough nylon string. These balls were a precious commodity. As replacements to the more expensive inflatable soccer equipment, they helped popularize the sport to kids in all social milieus. Teachers understood this perfectly. Staff on duty would happily confiscate a soccer ball, stashing it in the staff room as punishment for some infraction or other. Any student brave enough to venture into that lair of male and female educators, asking after his prized possession, must have had a death wish. Some kids could pull it off. Most, however, only got their balls back after receiving several strokes of the cane for their trouble. During P.E., we’d be separated by gender. I never saw girls play soccer. Often, we’d start the class with a co-ed circle of game songs. Each student sat on the grass, and 1 randomly selected pupil would walk around on the outside as we all joined her in singing “I sent a letter to my father…” At the end of the song, as the walker chose the individual who’d found the lost letter, we’d all perk up. “It wasn’t you! It wasn’t you! It wasn’t you! But. It. Was. YOU!” The person tagged last, and the tagger, would run in opposite directions. The goal was to return to the empty spot before your opponent, in which case you’d get to sit as they walked around the circle for another round of the game. It helped to tag one of the unfit kids.

Another favorite group activity was “nyama, nyama, nyama.” Everybody stands, one student facing the rest of the group. He chants “Nyama! Nyama! Nyama!” And the group replies, “Nyama!” The soloist will then reel out a list of edible meats. “Ya ng’ombe?” “Nyama!” “Ya kuku?” “Nyama!” “Ya kondoo?” “Nyama!” Expert players would then rush their audiences through a quick succession of edible meats: chicken, mutton, camel, goat, and each time the group as a whole would jump and shout “Nyama!” Yes, indeed, that particular animal is edible. The point of the game was to trick a member of the audience into jumping and affirming edible an animal that was known to be anything but. Having lulled his listeners into a soothing pattern of palatable meats, the leader would throw in “Ya paka?” If you were alert you’d stay standing and shout back “Sio nyama!” If you’d been duped into jumping and shouting that cat meat is eatable, you’d get laughed at, and have to swop positions with the chanter. You were it. Not until later did we appreciate the fact that cat, dog, donkey, zebra, and many more besides, are all delicacies in spaces outside our Ngong Hills experience.

Following this, the girls would go off on one side to play Kati, while the boys would walk towards the goal posts for a match. Renowned players always got to be captains. Let’s just say I was never captain. These two would then get to pick their team, strategically trying to get the best men on their side before the other side did. There was never much hurry to pick me. If given a choice I’d more happily have walked off the pitch. Under a teacher’s duress, however, I was content to play defense. I accepted my handicap as a forward striker, and would rarely attempt anything so skillful. But I was a dogged defender, left or right, but more often right. I could mark my man, and really throw myself into the scuffle until my opponent either lost or passed the ball. There was a stubbornness associated with defense work that I truly enjoyed. A certain risk-taking did not hurt either. It was not uncommon to collide with your opponent’s shin, boot, or knee. Often we played barefoot. Cleats and shin guards were completely unheard of. Meanwhile, the girls would be playing 1 or 2 simultaneous games of dodgeball. Two girls would stand in a line, and everyone else would stand in the middle. The girls at the end would throw a small fist-sized ball between them. Their objective was to hit one of the girls in the middle. Those in the middle strove to either dodge or catch the ball without dropping it, before sending it back to a thrower at either end. It made sense to pick the low-lying fruit first. Any girls who were even slightly overweight and challenged in the fitness department were eliminated first. Expert players could crouch, jump, and swerve in acrobatic moves that defied the throwing capacities of the strikers at each end. These would be declared the winners.

On the First Day…

We’d just moved house in June 1990. We were now living about 4km from Ngong town and it was time for me enroll back in school. The 2nd academic term runs from early May through end of July; after catching up, I’d have almost 6 weeks before the end-of-term assessments. That first week, I was accompanied by my mother who helped me figure out the bus route. We boarded a 111 matatu at Bulbul Market on its way from Nairobi. During peak hours, passenger vehicles heading to Nairobi would be crowded with private employees and civil servants on their way to offices in the CBD. Squashed next to each other, passengers suffered the indignity of smelling unwashed armpits, stale breath, and rancid week-old socks. Given than we were heading in the opposite direction, it was easy to get a seat. As soon as we boarded, the van drove downhill past a former meat processing plant. At Vet, a bus stop named after the agricultural and veterinary extension farm that ran beside the road, a few older women got in and sat  in front of us. Given their baskets made of recycled nylon sacks, they were headed to the Ngong Market. Just past the PCEA Enchoro-Muny church, and before the matatu got to its last stop, my mom and I alighted.

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Right to left, Joram N. and I. Circa 2008. This kid was legendary! A goof who was ever willing to explore the lighter side of life.

We’d walk the rest of the way to school; 5 minutes later, she pointed out where one of her uncles lived. With time, this would be my favorite alternative after-school destination. But for now, I focused my energy on getting the hang of this new community: Ngong Hills Academy. A place I’d eventually call home for the next 8 years. Mr. and Mrs. Mureithi, the proprietors of the school, had turned the institution into a brand name associated with academic excellence. The private school education did not come cheap. But both parents and faculty understood that the hefty investment in a child’s future would certainly pay off.

That first day, we walked into the receptionist’s office. Mom and I met Mrs. Mureithi, the headmistress, and I was led to my class by a staff member. I was enrolled in Standard One with Teacher Christine. The thing about Tr. Christine is that she was cute, in that attractive aunty kind of way. She presided over her quota of 6 and 7-year-olds with magnanimity. I was assigned to a large table where I sat on a wooden chair and avoided eye contact with the other 3 kids who, already seated, preferred to stare instead of crayoning within the line. Like mine, their chairs were painted in the primary hues of the color wheel: red, blue, yellow. This vibrant background helped highlight our school uniforms.

Being a proper academy, Mrs. Mureithi’s institution set itself apart in many ways. Not for her pupils the earthy brown, dark green, and slimy pink that public schools in the region mandated as school uniform. Instead, she chose a blue sweater, red and white checked shirt and grey shorts for boys, or red and white plaid dresses for girls. These were crowned using grey socks with blue, white, and yellow stripes at the top. Footwear was standard issue, black or brown. In the right conditions, this combo reeked of middle-class dreams and anxieties about one-upping your neighbors. It was the perfect advertising strategy.

I began my Ngong Hills education with a bang and I blame it all on Wakori. It’s a pretty run-of-the-mill story. Classroom bully always seeking attention. Spies fresh prey on whom to exercise his power games. Pounces. The victim strikes back, viciously. Bully, totally stunned, sees his young life flash before him, and vows to reform his ways. Everyone lives happily ever after. And that’s the way it went down between Wakori and I. Almost. Except for the part about me standing up to my tormentor.

This is how it really went down. It was right after lunch, a bowl of boiled rice and bean stew. As usual, Tr. Christine  prepped her class for the daily arithmetic exercises.  I was nervous, and really wanted my penmanship to be perfect. This was a new school after all, and first impressions count. I pressed the pencil too hard into the square-lined exercise book and it buckled under pressure. A few seconds later, the lead point on my HB no. 2 flew half way across the table. I stood up to bend forward and stretch my short arms towards a pack of freshly sharpened pencils in the middle. Wakori saw this, smiled smugly, and went into action! I sat back down, expecting my chair to be exactly where my bum had left it a few moments before, Instead, I met nothing but a void. As I lost my balance and scrambled on the table’s edge to regain composure, I had that sinking feeling that accompanies public humiliation. A few sniggles later, with more wounded pride than broken bone, I pulled my chair back into place and concentrated on the task at hand. Tr. Christine was aghast. Wakori had been caught picking on the new kid! She not only gave him a good talking to, but may also have spanked him. At least I like to think she did. In my 7-yearr old imagination, Tr. Christine immediately transformed into a saving angel. And did I mention that she was cute, in that attractive-aunty kind of way?