Heading Out to Singapore

Mrs. Myra Mutsune was my second high school Biology teacher. Our first had had to leave midway through Form 2, and Mutsune took over. Mutsune was tough; she pushed us in the way she expected KCSE to kick our butts. She was also strict on discipline. Her and Nabil had a big run in. it was caused by the same reason she was always extra tough on Bajaber, she didn’t think either  applied themselves diligently enough to their studies. From her vantage point, Bajaber was a bad influence on other students, being older, skilled on the pitch, and hence a role model. Nabil, to Mutsune’s chagrin, fell for this, and would sometimes act the goof instead of strapping in and getting shit done. And if there was one thing Mutsune could not abide, it was wasting time.

We got along, thankfully. Biology ended up being one of my favorite subjects. And I especially enjoyed ecology. Ecology was not only easy, it was also a cool narrative, bordering on human geography, about the environment. It made sense given how I saw the world, and I loved seeing ferns and the different kinds of plants while walking on trails in Kangawa. Post-KCSE, and having scored a strong A in Biology, Mutsune became a natural ally in my quest for the next adventure. She brainstormed with me on my approach to Dr. Pragnell and how I was to solicit his help in gaining admission into Aga Khan’s I.B. program. She consoled me after my petition proved quite unsuccessful. And then suggested an alternative. Turns out her son and daughter had both completed their KCSE education in Kenya, before attending a prestigious institution called the United World College. Mutsune’s kids had then gone on to attend university in the U.S. I liked the idea. As long as someone else was paying for tuition, I was down! She shared the same opportunity with Situma and Salim, and even offered to help us compose our application cover letters. Over three days, I commuted back and forth to school, sharing drafts with her and revising based on her comments. When Situma and Salim were in at the same time, we’d sit in a room and work on the letters. She read our final drafts and approved. It was time to send these babies out into the world, and find out if they could truly hold water. Sink or swim.

Peter, Staal and Shaka

The UWC application was always advertised in one of Kenya’s leading newspaper, the Daily Nation. Their Monday edition is titled Blackboard, and it has a wide variety of news related to the education sector. Soon after KCSE results are released by the Kenyan Ministry of Education, the UWC group would place a one-paragraph ad inviting applicants to submit material for review. I went to Nairobi’s General Post Office, GPO, and mailed my envelope. I crossed my fingers, and let it go. Let happen what may, I whispered.

In Kenya the post office does not deliver mail to your door step. Instead, you rent a mailbox at your nearest post office, and check mail as often as you can. Our box rental was at the GPO station. It had originally been my grandmother’s, so occasionally mother would pick up my uncle’s mail and drop it off at his Kariobangi South residence. Hence, there was no way for me to know that UWC had responded to my application. I had to go check the mailbox. My first trip back about a week after mailing the documents turned up nothing. This was on a Saturday, and I’d planned to see Lorraine later in town anyway, so the one hour bus ride to town was not a total waste. About 10 days later, I went back to check our family mailbox and found an envelope from the United World College Kenya National Committee. Turns out I’d been invited for an interview. I went straight to school and shared the news with Mutsune. She was super pleased. We chatted about what the interview was all about. The UWC folks wanted to learn more about me as a leader, how I meant to take advantage of global opportunities, and how I intended to contribute to Kenyan society. I started preparing answers for those questions. Mutsune added it was also important that I discuss explicitly how I would represent Kenya on a global stage. What parts of Kenyan culture was I comfortable sharing with people from all over the world? This all seemed exciting. And also a little daunting. Finally, she added, I should make sure to speak up and project confidence.

The interview was scheduled for a Saturday, from 8am till late in the evening. And I couldn’t wait to go prove my chops. A couple of months before this I’d just read about the mental practice of visualizing success. Every day, in the week leading up to the interview, I spent 5 to 10 minutes meditating my plan of attack. I imagined myself well-spoken, standing tall, and confident. I reminded myself to enunciate properly and not to speak too fast, as I tend to do when I’m nervous. I reflected on my tendency to adopt a poker face when frazzled, and how I should be more emotive at certain moments. I’d sit on a one-person settee, prop my legs up on the coffee table, and lean back. This position was especially comfortable when the lights were out. Then I could just close my eyes, facing the ceiling, and imagine the winning personality I was going to unleash on the selection committee. Saturday morning, I was ready. Even though I expected tea, snacks, and lunch, I started off with a sizeable breakfast. A growling stomach was the last kind of distraction I’d want on such a nerve-wracking day.

Route 111 matatus don’t go into Hurlingham, not unless they’re maneuvering their way out of traffic. This meant I had to alight at Uchumi Ngong Hyper and take a matatu #46. About 15 minutes later, I got off at Rose Avenue, anxious not to miss my stop. I was early. I had time to scope the dusty street as I looked for the gate with a sign saying Dr. Musimbi Ondeko, Chiropractor. I had no idea what chiropractors did, but it sounded exotic enough to be associated with the global-oriented UWC movement. I said “vipi boss!” to the guard, before asking for directions. “Ofisi ya Dr. Ondeko ni gani?” He indicated with his left hand at a two-story building. A placard at the main entrance indicated that I should head to the first floor. I knocked on a varnished door, twisted the handle, and walked in.

Behind the front desk sat 2 ladies, whom I’d later come to know as Irene and Rose. I introduced myself, and was immediately directed to the back of the building, where the other applicants had gathered. Looking out the back window behind Irene, I saw that a large tent had been laid out. Plastic chairs were arranged in rows and a few male and female students were seated. I politely excused myself and walked to the back. The area was covered with grass, not exactly a lawn, but more like a private backyard. In addition to the students, I noted several adults. In a few moments, just as I was chatting to the kids around me, one of the older ladies introduced herself as Dr. Musimbi Ondeko. The interview began with Ondeko and several former UWC graduates sharing with us some of their experiences. We heard from Walter, Shiro Mwangi, Watene, Obulutsa, and Osire. They’d finished high school in Kenya before attending UWC schools in the U.S., Italy, Canada, Wales, and Norway. After their undergraduate education, they’d returned to the country and currently worked in finance, journalism, and the healthcare fields. Their journeys back home were crucial in fulfilling the UWC mission: that UWC graduates would be at the forefront of positive and sustainable social change in their communities. This was the model against which our candidacy was to be judged. The day’s schedule started off with some group activities; later on after lunch there were to be one-on-one interviews with 3 members of the national committee. Situma and Salim were seated next to me, and when we were divvied up into teams, they each went to a different group.

I knew I was being watched. I took care to not only participate fully, but also to involve others. Our first task was a typical team building activity: interlock hands and untangle the entire team without breaking contact, while racing the other three teams. We might have been shy while eyeing each other, initially sizing up the competition, but with hands twisted we all of a sudden got very close and personal. We were literally in each other’s space. We laughed uneasily as we grasped fingers tighter, smelling each other’s body odor. Nervous adolescent smiles masked the hormonal rhythms awakened by such close proximity to gorgeous members of the opposite sex. By 11am, with Nairobi’s sun already beating down on us, sweat trickled down our back as we maneuvered limbs — stepping over legs and wriggling underneath arms. My team didn’t win, but we did come a close second. I knew the polite thing to do was to honestly congratulate the winners, as well as pat my team members on the back. The budding leader in me was being let loose.

Having gotten to know each other, we were now tasked with performing a skit. Each team was assigned a topic, and they had 30min to create a script, rehearse, and perform in front of everyone else. The idea was that each performance should be both entertaining and educational. Our assigned topic was corruption — a national ill that Kenyans love to rile against in public, whilst indulging behind closed doors. Our basic scenario was a doting dad rushing to his daughter’s high school visiting day — that Saturday every semester when parents could visit their kids and shower them with love and fast food. Unfortunately, the father rans into traffic cops who flag him for a broken headlight. After discovering that the fellow’s license has expired, they handcuff him ready for  remand. His wife pleads with them and offers KSHS 10,000 so they can get on with their journey. In our imagined Kenya, the lady was swiftly reprimanded for attempting to bribe officers of the law. She, too, was arrested under bribery charges and read her rights. Although we’d come up with lines, we forgot half of them due to stage fright and simply improvised a lot. Dan, this one kid on our team, volunteered early on to the be the Constable. He had no lines but a lot of gruff noises and physical exertion. He manhandled the beleaguered father into an imaginary police jeep. Earning applause from the audience and the judges. We were quite pleased with our thespian skills.

By the time every other team had presented their performance, it was lunch time. There was a caterer at hand who set up plastic plates, complete with white forks and spoons on a table. We were invited to help ourselves to pots of pilau rice, chicken stew, and salad. To fully quench the equator sun, warm soda and water was also offered. Whether out of politeness or perhaps because it gave them another chance to watch us in action, the selection committee asked that we get our food before them. It was only when we were all seated chewing and salving our hunger that they too served themselves. The committee members distributed themselves amongst the different groups, and we were all soon engaged in discussions about life post-KCSE.

Bellies full, tongues loosened, too. We laughed while listening to mishaps from UWC life: rooming with a white kid who was seeing a black person for the first time; learning to eat using a fork and knife; dealing with homesickness. It all sounded plenty tough, but I remained unfazed. If that was the price for seeing a new part of the world, and exercising my adventurous spirit, so be it. I was down. The committee retreated indoors, setting themselves up in three rooms where they were to field face-to-face interviews. Given the personalities on display, we could already predict which panels would be tough. Ondeko clearly had a big personality. She could come across as intimidating. I was not eager to spur with her. Watene and Walter both looked like goof balls. But that was not necessarily a good thing. I felt anxious that if I could not match their sense of humor, I’d immediately be relegated to the bottom of the pile. It might have been a fun day hanging out and role playing, but at stake was someone’s future. This was clearly demonstrated when we had to fill in our preferences. To me this was akin to asking a starving man what he’d like to order for an eight course meal. Nothing? Everything? Don’t care as long as it’s edible? There were 27 applicants, vying for 7 spots. The odds were not terrible, but clinching a scholarship certainly wasn’t going to be a walk in Kangawa forest, either. To help us fill out the preference forms, we were informed that some UWCs offered full scholarships, including airfare to school and back, while others did not. There was no point in me dreaming about attending schools in the U.S. or Wales. My family was in no position to pay for an international flight, let alone pay tuition in foreign currency. Canada and Singapore were known to offer full rides. Clearly those were the spots I should gravitate towards. I certainly must have heard of Singapore before that Saturday, but not in any context that I can remember. I had no idea whether Singaporeans ate with their nose and walked on their hands. But after seeing a school magazine highlighting a Kenyan scholar who’d been a star basketball player, I decided this would be my first choice school. I not only figured that most of my peers would shy away from such an exotic location, I also had a sense that the west could wait — that eventually I’d get to see Canada, the United States, and Europe. Chances to study and live in Asia, however, I intuitively knew would be few and far between. I marked the United World College of South East Asia as my first choice destination, handed in my form, and walked into my group interview.

I’d been on adrenaline all day, and as often happens I was about to crash. The lunch break helped to revive me a bit, but I knew I’d have to perk up some more. I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my limbs so as to rev my engine. I wanted to hit the ground running once those questions began flying at me. I walked into the office, and Rose indicated which door I should open to go face the proverbial music. I entered to find the panel reviewing my application material. At least Musimbi and Shiru were; Walter and Watene were yarning about something. They ushered me in with a big karibu, gesturing to a seat directly in front of them. I sat down hoping they won’t ask me questions based on the cover letter; it had a fair number of embellishments. Maintaining eye contact was something I’d repeatedly imprinted on my brain. That, plus firm handshakes, were key features of making a good first impression. Or so I’d read.

The interview panel sported smiles on their faces. I took that to be a good sign. I adjusted my body posture to demonstrate attention and enthusiasm. I nodded as Musimbi posed the first question. She was interested in my involvement at school. The UWC program was all about grooming future leaders; this was an easy shot for me. I put down the water bottle from which I’d just sipped and began rattling out the different ways I’d practiced my leadership skills at Aga Khan. There was my St. John’s Ambulance Cadet experience. I’d emcee’d a one-day interschool literature and drama festival. I’d written an essay about global issues that received a commendation from the Commonwealth Essay Competition. And of course I’d participated in the school’s community service initiatives. This was another important segment in one’s candidacy: the ability to articulate how a UWC education would enable a student to return to Kenya, share their skills, and contribute to social justice.

They nodded satisfaction. And Watene pounced next. He was interested in how I’d represent Kenyan culture while abroad. What artifacts could I call upon in showcasing Kenya’s beauty and diversity to people who’d perhaps never heard of the country before? I’d spent four years in high school engaged in debates about African literature. It wasn’t a large leap to elaborate on how oral storytelling and the songs of Kenyan communities could be used to showcase Kenyan culture. Watene pressed further; could I give an example? I paused for a bit, before launching into song. I knew “Kanyoni ka Nja” from stories Wainaina would tell me. I sang a few of the opening lines and Watene roared back in laughter. He was pleased.

Clearly, they’d set themselves up to ask one questions each, so I turned to either Walter or Shiru, expectantly. Walter sat up in his chair, he was gonna go next. He asked me about my career plans and how those would enable me to create positive change back home. I thought back to the glossy college brochures that Aga Khan Academy stocked in its library. Colorful magazines with well-dressed and attentive students at Harvard, Oxford, Yale, Cambridge, University College London, Sheffields, etc. I’d soaked this in and decided my dream was to pursue either genetic or chemical engineering. I went with chemical engineering to answer Walter’s question, expounding on how an undergraduate degree in ChemE would help me work in recycling. I argued that given Nairobi’s fast population growth, what the city, and other urban areas on the continent needed, was serious effort in waste management. Not only would proper waste disposal reduce risk of diseases, it would also offer raw materials for a home-grown manufacturing industry. They all nodded in agreement. My fantasy sounded convincing enough.

It was now left to Shiru to pose the last question. Instead, she took the opportunity to thank me for attending the interview, as well as explaining how the next steps of the selection would go. Obviously, the committee would have to complete the rest of the panel interviews that afternoon, after which they were to reconvene the week after for final deliberation. I asked about how long before I should expect to hear back: 2-3 weeks. We shook hands all around, I went out back and chatted with Ruth and Salim for a bit, then walked out the gate to catch my ride home. I was anxious about getting a positive response, but there was little else I could do at this juncture but wait.

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Now I Could Face My Family with Pride.

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, I said.

Oh, you scored an A-.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How I Met Lorraine

And that’s how I met Lorraine. I was heading home one afternoon, and as I walked out the building I ran into a bunch of high schoolers hanging out. My eyes zeroed in on a Maxi skirt, this flowing phenomenon of fashion. A Maxi skirt is such a contradiction for me. My sense of style is all about minimalism; I dislike anything superfluous in a dress – bits the tailor should clearly have trimmed before the item made it to the store. Except when it comes to Maxi skirts: where excess is the new simple. And Lorraine wore hers with panache. The light grey skirt fit her perfectly, sculpting her hips and curves like marble. The cotton-polyester blend moved in waves as she stood chatting with her buddies. She wore her top a little small; if you paid attention as she balanced on one leg then the other, you saw a glimpse of her firm tummy underneath. And then her hair-do was a school-girl-blow-dried-pony-tail that’s quite common in Nairobi. More fashionable than corn rows, but not illegal like perms and weaves. Basically, she looked hot. I’d not seen this group of kiddos before, and they did not seem particularly studious. They all seemed to be at the library more for the company than for quiet study spaces. I overcame my prejudice. I also knew I had to step up and Carpe Diem, chances were that this beauty would not be frequenting the stacks. The surprise is that I somehow plucked up enough courage to walk over, say hello, and introduce myself. Two minutes later I could not have told you what her companions’ names were, but I did walk away with Lorraine’s email address. This was 2001, and we were all going digital. Cell phones were not yet in, so email was the way to stand out.

And we began an email correspondence. Mostly one paragraph messages that always started “I hope you’re well?” Sometimes I’d be adventurous and switch it up to “Sasa, I hope U r OK?” Once final exams were over, we had a lot more time on our hands. We could write more often. I was now a frequent customer at my neighborhood cyber café. Going to the “Cyber” was posh. This practice clearly marked as you not-villager, as destined for great things. It was all about being modern. Forget that connection was dial-up, and a few kilobytes of email took forever to load. The keyboards were clunky, and the monitors huge. Internet cafes crammed in as many machines as they could; most of them locked away in wooden cabinets for a semblance of privacy, but especially for security reasons.

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Going to the “Cyber” was posh. This practice clearly marked as you not-villager, as destined for great things.

Once Lorraine and I had established an ongoing conversation, email was no longer enough. We needed something more immediate, a way to hear the gasps, sighs, and heart throbs that accompanied whatever news we exchanged. And that’s how we graduated to evening phone calls. Lorraine gave me a cell number, and advised me to call mostly in the evenings after 5pm. The phone probably belonged to her parents. It was one of those 0733 numbers, the very first sequence of KenCell mobile subscribers. KenCell, rival to the much more established Safaricom, was rolling out phone booths by the hundreds, and signing new customers by the thousands. Their ideas was to grab as much market share as possible, then worry about profits later. At Vet, next to the first supermarket in the area, KenCell installed a phone booth. You couldn’t miss it if you tried: neon pink, bright and shiny. It called attention to itself, and whoever was suave enough to have business with it. The chemist in the same complex sold phone cards in KSHS 100, 250, 500, and 1000 denominations. My go-to was the KSHS250 card: affordable enough to my unemployed wallet, but not so cheap that you’d be embarrassingly cut off mid-sentence just as you were melting your Intended’s heart. Around 5:30pm I’d shower, get dressed, and walk to the phone booth. If I was too early, I’d hang around for a bit, before placing my call.

“Hello, may I please speak with Lorraine?” Most days, she’d pick up herself, clearly waiting for my call. Other times, I’d be less lucky. Or perhaps she would be on the line with other suitors. The worst was calling, one of her relatives would pick up, and let me know that Lorraine was around, just not in the house. That perhaps she’d just ran out for an errand and would be back soon; would I please call back in about 15-20 minutes? That meant waiting as the sun went down. And the mosquitoes came out!

Eventually, I did get through, and convinced her to venture out to my house. We arranged the trip; she was to come over next week on Tuesday. I was super excited; Lorraine was quite the catch – way above my pay grade. And I couldn’t wait to meet her at the bus stop and walk her home. I could just imagine how envious my Kangawa buddies would be. My instructions were pretty easy; she caught a 111 matatu, and got off at Vet. This stop was a little farther away from my house than Bul, but it was also more polished. The last thing I wanted to do was disappoint my ka-babe by walking her through the dilapidated slum that Bul Bul township was.

I was feeling all kinds of nervous that afternoon. My mom had errands to run so she was out of the house. Home alone! With a gorgeous girl for company – 7th heaven! I made sure to set aside some food for her, a plate of the githeri we’d had for lunch. I met Lorraine, and we started walking back home. Just a few houses away, we ran into my mother, she was standing by the roadside chatting with Njane. We, obviously, had to walk over and say hello. This was an excruciating moment and I couldn’t wait to be done. Meeting with my mother, and Njane’s knowing glances, was seriously undoing the cool demeanor I’d adopted for that afternoon.

Lorraine had some of the githeri. Then we just sat chit-chatting about nothing. I wanted to kiss her. And having no idea how to ask her, I suggested that I show her my bedroom. I’m neat to a fault, so my room was always a pleasure to show off, especially my small fiction library. These were still the days when teenagers exchanged Danielle Steele’s, James Grisham’s, and Sidney Sheldon’s: paperback American thrillers and romance series. We sat on my bed and flipped through the books, our finger tips grazing as we perused the glossy covers. I had all sorts of dreams about physical intimacy. I was done with high school, my virginity intact, and ready to lose it. A part of me hoped this afternoon might be the day!

Then Lorraine started coughing. Our house didn’t have a ceiling. You could see right through the boxed rafters, originally designed for nailing the ceiling boards, to the green-colored mabati sheets. Our neighbor to the right had a tall Acacia tree in his yard. The Acacia did a wonderful job of providing shade during hot afternoons, but it also shed leaves like crazy. The small twigs, a giraffe delicacy, would make their way into the most counter-intuitive spots. For sure you could spot Acacia leaves on the gutters which harvested rain water, but you could also see some of these leaves caught in spider webs on the ceiling or indeed floating down towards you from the rafters. As I tried to assuage Lorraine back into health, one of those brown, dry twig floated from my bedroom ceiling, landing neatly on a shiny Sidney Sheldon cover between us. And just like that, I knew my dreams of being an afternoon Casanova were gone. My libido dropped in tandem with the falling leaf. She was now coughing up a riot; she was in no position for a kiss, much less a sexual proposition. I ushered her out of the seclusion of my room, back into the living room. I dashed back to the kitchen to fetch her a glass of water, pausing momentarily by the side board with all of Mother’s delicate china. This was the stuff my family never used; it was only available for special occasions – like when we had guests over. Lorraine accepted the water thankfully, gulping it down before placing the glass – clear, with blue leaflets plastered on its side – back onto the table. We didn’t sit for much longer, since it was already getting late, and not only would Mother be back soon, Lorraine also still needed to catch a bus home.

Ever the gentleman, I walked her to the bus stop. Though disappointed, I had no choice since she would not have found the path back on her own. I’m glad that I did. I chose to use the shorter route through Bul; this was the path I had often taken to and fro school. Unless I’d gone to evening mass, I’d cut across town around 6pm, in my school uniform, and my back pack swinging on one shoulder. That late in the day, it was all survival mode: just make it home so I could sit down for a snack. With Lorraine beside me, though, I was in beast mode. I walked liked I owned the entire city, like a Big Dog. But I still had to play it cool: real men, I figured, don’t make it too obvious that they’re smitten by the woman whose hand they’re holding.

Deux Vultures had just released a hit single “Monalisa.” The song is all about this gorgeous babe whom the persona is in love with. His buddies are totally shocked that he snagged such a catch. Those lyrics described me to a T. No surprise then that just as we walked past the last block of shops, some joker belted out the line “Cheki vile Monalisa anatingisha!” “Watch Monalisa move her hips!” Lorraine chuckled; I squeezed her hand a bit and gave the guy a nod. I was basically like “yeah! You said it!” Heading to town on a weekday afternoon means you’re going against traffic. Lorraine didn’t have to wait for long before an empty matatu came by. One hug and a goodbye later, she boarded, and that was that. Lorraine and I met a few weeks later to watch “Captain Cornelius’ Mandolin” at Nairobi Cinema. But I moved to Singapore soon after and our love never blossomed.

Study Habits Die Hard

I was hooked on success. After leading the pack in our end of term 1 exams, I wanted more of the same. I figured I could repeat this feat in term two. This was the genesis of study habits that have largely endured to this day.

KCSE exams are a big fucking deal in Kenya. And they were certainly a big deal in my house. But all these was unspoken, of course. My family was not rolling in dough, and I knew that education was pretty much my only avenue to get ahead. My parents worked hard, but I recognized that if I was to escape the cycles of debt which they endured, my path lay through those dastardly end of high school certificates.

I’d go to bed at 10pm, often sleeping mid-sentence as I was chatting with my cousin. Wainaina lived with us, and took care of the family quarry operation. Since we didn’t have a guest room, and he was a permanent addition to the family, he couldn’t sleep on the couch. We squeezed two beds into my bedroom. They flanked what was formerly my mom’s sewing table, which I’d converted into my study desk. By 3am the next morning I’d be out of bed, looking for a matchbox to light a kerosene lamp. It gets chilly in Nairobi at dawn, but often that was not enough to keep me up. If I started dozing off, I resorted to a crude technique that would have made the infamous Nyayo House torturers proud: sticking my feet into a basin half filled with cold water. That shit works. All of a sudden your brain is jolted back to reality and the Chemistry equations you were looking at begin to make sense!

Although I lived pretty far from school, and had to take two buses on my daily commute, I was often one of the first students to get on campus. Arriving at 6:30am usually gave me just over an hour to study quietly before the grounds got noisy. And this was the second pillar in my study plans. I either sat outside in the same spaces we occupied over tea break and lunch hour, or found an empty classroom and squirreled myself away in the corner. With time, I even found a partner in crime. Lois was a year ahead of me, so she had her big exams looming large. She was pretty good at school, and hence she did not wait to do last minute revisions. And while she had more material to cover than I did, I was often a resource when she had questions about topics she’d gone over two or three years ago. I loved my study sessions with Lois, and it certainly didn’t hurt that she was pretty. We had the same kind of demeanor: mostly quiet and subdued. But I also totally had the hots for Diana, her close friend. Tricky situation this. It was the year 2000 and Beyonce’s Destiny’s Child was topping global billboards. “Say My Name” was exactly what I silently willed Diana to do. But my infatuation was more often associated with the feelings evoked by Whitney Houston’s “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay:” sad rejection and unreciprocated affection.

Weekday study plans started at 3am, and continued once I got to school at 6:30am. I deliberately did nothing all day Sunday, except go to morning mass, read the Sunday Nation, and possibly go for a walk with Njoki, or jog by myself. Saturdays, however, were heavy lifting kinda days. I’d be up, dressed, and having had breakfast by 7:45am. This gave me about 20 minutes to walk to the main road from where I could catch a 111 into town. The goal was to be at the Kenya National Library HQ by 8:45. 15 minutes later, I’d have deposited my bag – you couldn’t walk into the premises with that – and I’d be sitting at a desk ready to get work done.

 

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KCSE exams are a big deal in Kenya.

The Kenyan exam school is pretty big on rote learning and memorizing facts. The best students are not necessarily the most creative, but rather those who can regurgitate what they get from their teachers or their textbooks. I had problems with the system, but I also knew I’d have to play by the rules. I planned my Saturday study sessions in such a way that I could review 4 years’ worth of material for every subject. Form 1 and Form 2 lecture notes were fairly quick to go over, but by Form 3 the material becomes more challenging. The stuff we covered in Form 4 was of course super important since that would come up in our final exam. I’d slowly work my way through Math, English, Kiswahili, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Social Studies, and French.

Math and Chemistry were totally intuitive for me. As long as I made time for practice questions, I was OK. English, Kiswahili, and Social Studies were all literature-based. So that was pretty fun for me. But Social Studies was ridiculously counter-intuitive. In Form 1 and Form 2 I approached the subject like philosophy – that all questions were open to interpretation and so the examiner and I could debate on the merits of an answer. Well, turns out I was dead wrong. In response to the questions, “what makes a good society?” there was apparently only one answer. And that was the response you gave in Form 1, Form, 2, Form 3, and … guess what? Form 4 as well! Once I figured out that Social Studies had pre-approved answers I was expected to vomit on my exam paper, I started getting A’s!

My library sessions ended at 3pm. I’d not carry lunch, so I had to make sure my breakfast that morning would tide me over, but I stopped for a break every 45min. I’d walk around and browse rows of old Physics and Chemistry texts from the 50s and 60s. Safety in the reading rooms was not exactly tight, and this was before the era of security cameras. Which all meant I either took my books with me during break – and risked having someone take my spot, or I stayed within sight of my property, lest it get jacked and re-sold as 2nd hand books on Nairobi’s streets. To go to the bathroom you did a quick Hail Mary, and bolted there and back!

Studying at the library was not all work, however. There was a lot of play to be had. In early October, just before KCSE finals, we got about 10 days to go study at home. I spent every day of my study break in the reading room. This was now the last stretch, serious stuff. I even brought lunch with me so I could sit for an extra two hours till 5pm.