Beating the Odds

I loved beating the odds. In the first semester of Form 3 (grade 11), I’d missed an incredible number of classes due to an illness. My right leg had gotten infected with an ulcer, and it got so bad I couldn’t walk to school. I took myself to a subsidized medical clinic attached to a Hindu temple right behind the Nairobi Kenya Bus terminal. The nurse on duty helped me to wash the wound using hydrogen peroxide. The wound oozed and steamed. I nearly fainted from disgust. But this intense wound cleaning session did not help. The ulcer kept on eating into my calf muscles and nerves. I was soon using a walking stick to get around. Not only was the wound smelly and dripping pus, hence very annoying, it was also incredibly painful.

 

I believe this was my body’s way of mourning my Grandma’s death. Grandma had lived it up since the Fifties. She’d travelled, worked as a trade unionist, and single-mothered four kids. As the eldest, it was also her responsibility to educate her younger siblings, and hook them up with permanent employment. #blacktax Somewhere along the way, she’d also started smoking. Fast forward to 2000, and all that nicotine had come back to haunt her, in a big way. The destruction in her lungs started off as a dry cough. She saw a general practitioner who misdiagnosed it as TB. 18 months later, grandma had lost weight – and she was already pretty slim to begin with. Her appetite was gone, and even when she could eat, she’d barely keep any of it down.

It got so bad that Mother moved Grandma to our house, closer to medical specialists in Nairobi. I watched her body betray her, helpless and horrified. This dry-skinned emaciated figure sitting across from me in our living room had no resemblance to the smiling woman who always visited bringing passion fruit and guavas for my sisters and I. When Grandma visited, she took over my room; and it was always such a pleasure. With her in town, my parents and I would spend the evenings seated around a jiko in our kitchen, warming our legs and yarning tales. Those were good times. In her current form, Grandma had no energy to draw up a chair and talk long into the night. Her illness had turned her into a recluse who spent most of her time indoors, lying on my bed.
Juja 021

Grandma had lived it up since the Fifties. She’d travelled, worked as a trade unionist, and single-mothered four kids.

From bad to worse. By the time Grandma sought help, there was little that could be done except alleviate her pain and wait for the end. My parents got her admitted at a Dagoretti hospital that focused on respiratory health. This was on a Tuesday and she’d been doing pretty well since Sunday. It seemed like there might be hope, after all. False promises. Father says that once Grandma got into the ward and was shown to her bed, she accepted this new development resignedly. Totally makes sense. Grandma was a very private person. When on errands to buy her cigarettes I was always under strict instructions to come right back, and most definitely not to share this info with my rather loud-mouthed cousins. And come to think of it, although she’d spend several days when she visited Ngong, and I’m sure she’d sneak out for a ciggy, I never saw her do it. And she made pretty sure neither did my sisters. For her to then be left at the mercy of government health workers would have been detestable.
Mom and dad went back the next day to check in on her. Turns out her improvement had been anything but; she’d passed on later that night. By the time Mother got back home with the news, a bunch of ladies from the neighborhood had stopped by, just to check in. Before she could break the news to them, Mother had to tell me first. So we’re all seated in the living room, and Mother is asking me to step outside for a minute. I don’t put two and two together, so I’m actually kinda pissed. It’s a hell of a pain to hobble around on my right leg, ulcer and all, and I can’t for the life of me imagine why she’s insisting I go through with this. I limped my way through the kitchen and into the yard, and it’s then that Mother broke the news. Grandma was gone. I could only picture granny fallen on the ground, and struggling to get up. That chronic illness had taken away the matriarch I loved long before, this was simply the last, inevitable, blow. But it was still impossible to let go.
Numbed, I followed Mother back indoors. She relayed the sad news to our neighbors. It was now all about funeral arrangements. We had people drop by in the evenings, but it was not a full-on wake. There was no fire blazing; no night vigil with hymns, plus the occasional drunk. There was a constant river of tea, and an exercise book where funeral donations were carefully noted, but there weren’t any plates of boiled, salted maize and beans passed around at midnight for well-wishers to snack on. All that was reserved for Grandma’s Juja home.
I never made it to the funeral; my leg wound took care of that. It was raining buckets, and I could not even put on a pair of shoes, let alone the requisite pair or rubber gumboots. From what I hear, digging the grave was a disaster. Not even the customary dish of Ugali accompanied with matumbo was enough compensation for the labor required. This was like digging a well in the middle of the ocean. Drilling an oil rig in the Indian Ocean would have been more fun. Grave diggers had to take frequent breaks to bail water out. Even worse, it rained the previous night before the funeral. And it kept on raining even once the funeral procession got to Juja. The extended family still talks about that rain in awe. Shoes were lost in the black cotton soil. 4WD vehicles gave up the ghost in the middle of swamps. The coffin had to be hand carried the last one kilometer to the house. This was a long, wet day.
I sat at home, thinking farewell to Grandma. When everybody got back home from the funeral, life went on as best it could. There was a void, but such is mortality. I moved back into my room. Mother and I went to see Dr. Wanene – this famous GP who back in the early Nineties had treated by great grandmother. He did nothing more than wash the wound with Dettol and dress it with fresh bandages. He advised I do that twice daily. I was unimpressed. This fellow was telling me the exact thing I’d been doing all along! Surprisingly, Dr. Wanene’s touch was magic. The wound turned around; the flesh at the edges regained a healthy pink glow. It was healing. I still limped, but the pus discharge had abated. I could go back to school. A few weeks later, end of semester exams were due. I did them with no expectations; I’d missed almost half the term. When our final grades were released, it was clear I might have missed classes, but I wasn’t just lying on my ass either. It was a nice ending to what had been a tough three months. Although I’d attended the least number of classes, I walked away with the highest scores. Poetic justice. Or simply Grandma smiling down at me to continue her streak of academic prowess?
Advertisements

Herds Boy Tales

One school holiday, after spending all term making puppy eyes at Irene – to no avail – I went to stay with Grandma. It couldn’t be a school holiday without going to Ocha in Juja. Grandma’s was great! First of all there was tons of milk, weather permitting. And for lunch, she’d often make thoroko. These vegetables are great in fiber, which I couldn’t have known back then. But thoroko have such strange texture; they’re really chewy. You could masticate on a mouthful for 5 minutes, and still not have sucked out all that juiciness. As a little boy, chewing on these strange tasting veggies was such a delight. Then there was always the chance of taking grandma’s dog for a hunt, and returning home with a rabbit or a young antelope – both delicious game meats.

In April, during the rainy season, Juja floods. This meant herding grandma’s livestock shod in gumboots or plastic sandals. Turns out you get terrible heat burn when you do that. For an 11-year old boy, the best part about living away from your mother for 3 weeks is that you don’t have to shower every single evening. Hence, all of a sudden, I had more time in the evening to challenge Njoro, my uncle, and grandma’s youngest kid, into farting contests. This being just a few years after the 1st American adventure in Iraq and Kuwait, our flatulence was appropriately named SCUD missiles and RPGs.

Our evening competitions over, we’d go to bed. Or rather I should say, I swam to bed. I was one of those kids who didn’t stop wetting their beds till really late. I mean like 10 or 11-years-old-late. My mother took me to see a sleep specialist. But that didn’t help. And once she quit her job, out went health insurance. I never returned to see the doctor. Instead, I went through a ridiculous number of mattresses, each lasting only slightly longer than the previous one as I doused them nightly with urine. In the middle, where a puddle would form each night, was usually the first spot to wear thin. Then a large tear would appear, eventually making its way to one of the corners, and thus rendering the mattress quite useless. With time, it made more sense that I use the hand-me-down mattresses that either my parents or my sisters had worn thin. That way it wasn’t such a loss to witness the mattress shrink and shrivel a la my nocturnal activities. It did, however, mean that I’d have to make several trips each morning taking out individual bedding pieces to dry in the sun. Usually I’d try and hang them out of sight; that way no neighborhood kids would ask awkward questions.

When I spent the holidays at Grandmas, I’d sleep in the living room, on the couch – my uncle Njoro having had it till up here with my nightly liquid adventures. We tried all kinds of tricks. One night I was banned from drinking tea just before going to bed. That didn’t help. Then I was asked not to drink any water after sundown. The next morning my couch was still soaked. As a list ditch attempt, Njoro woke me up around 3am to pee outside. I staggered out the door, eyes half-closed, tried not to pee on my feet, then stumbled back to bed. I woke up to even more pee than usual; this time not only had I wet the couch and the cushions, the floor was also flooded. Peeing in bed was like a curse! I started to worry that someone with an evil eye had indeed bewitched me, jealous that I was doing so well in school. Grandma and Njoro resigned themselves to the daily stink. And like clockwork, the sun would rise on me and my soggy beddings. December days are usually pretty warm and dry in Juja. That was lucky, because then my cushions would be dry by the evening when I brought them back inside.

DSCN1933

When school was out, in addition to cows and goats, they’d also send him young boys to help in tracking and corralling the animals.

Having laid out my beddings and cleaned up, I’d quickly do breakfast – often a plate of whatever was left over from dinner last night – and head out to meet Wa Ngoiri, our herdsman. Folks in the community sent him their livestock daily, and he’d look after them for a fee. When school was out, in addition to cows and goats, they’d also send him young boys to help in tracking and corralling the animals. And this is how I met Githu; he and I were assigned as Wa Ngoiri’s helpers. We’d get together first, merge our cattle, and drive them towards the larger herd. The rest of the day was spent sitting, whistling after errant goats, and stoning any village dogs that came too close to the sheep. While our supervisor may not have allowed it, we’d certainly have tried to initiate a bull fight between our largest animal, a light brown steer named Kilonzi, and smaller young males from competing herds. At lunch time, we’d find some shade, and while the animals chewed curd, we’d munch on ugali – soggy from sitting in sukuma wiki stew.

The day Wa Ngoiri “called in sick” Githu and I took charge. There were no cell phones so we didn’t know our lead herdsman won’t be at work till he sent a neighbor’s five-year old boy to my grandma early that morning. Granny explained that we’d have to make sure we keep the cattle in the old sisal plantations; this was the area with the most grass. I was also directed that in the afternoon we slowly make our way to the usual watering dam so the cows and goats could drink. Ever dutiful, I made sure Githu did all that. Finally, at 3pm, when the air is filled with bees shuttling back and forth to their hives, we sat down for lunch. We chose a rocky formation, giving us a good vantage over the resting animals. Today’s menu was cold rice, cooked in a broth of onions, tomatoes, and potatoes. This was 5-star dining and Githu wanted in. I was not too happy to share, especially since in return I only got his githeri stew. I took a few spoonfuls of the watery lunch and gave up.

Lunch over, we nestled in the grass to digest our food. Our backs rested against the rock, mimicking the animals when they wanted to scratch an itch. Lazily, we ended up on our backs, staring up at the sky. My hands wondered first, on to his pants, and eventually slid in under the loose elastic waistband. He sported neither undies nor boxers. No surprise there, he was a village boy to the core – after all. He took his penis in his right hand, grinning, and lanced my hand with it. I accepted the challenge, drawing forth my own weapon in preparation for this close quarter duel. Githu sat straddling me, his legs on either side of mine. I lay on my back, gazing through at the clouds when not engaged in the sword play we’d invented. I also kept an eye out for any intruder. Although we couldn’t exactly name whatever we were doing, we’d been socialized well enough to anticipate that adults would not appreciate our nudity. Eventually our curiosity abated; the mutual exploration ended and we got dressed. The sun was sinking in the horizon and it was time to lead the cattle back home.

A Series of Unfortunate Crushes

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

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

“Ewe Kaka, naomba kukukata!”

“Buddy, may I castrate you?”

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

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

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

IMG_0271

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Njoki on the Weekends – II

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

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

 

animals 007

Mickey quietly kept watch while Njoki and I continued chatting.

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

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.

IMG_3704

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.

IMG_0142

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!

 

Vertigo & Yellow, Sticky Juice

IMG_1583

My Bombolulu is made of green mangoes – large, juicy fruits sagging branches down to the red earth nourishing the roots. The dark brown stems inhibit my teenage attempts to scale to the ripe prizes beckoning me from up high. I am not to be deterred. I persist, and I’m rewarded with vertigo and yellow sticky juice running off the mango seed and down my elbows. Beneath the overhanging trees, amongst the sparse brush and undergrowth, I step over pungent, fermenting rotting fruit. I’m too ignorant to be scared of snakes. In this warm weather, I should be.

For three days that December, my sisters and I joined a horde of fancy-talking, Swahili-cultured kids. These are the kind of teenagers who’ll insult you in such titillating language that at the end of the verbal harangue you’ll smile back and nod in appreciation of the poetry. The rounded vowels slide out in quick succession, sculpting the jagged consonants into street poetry. We formed a company of troublemakers, the older kids evading the younger ones as we engaged in various escapades. My youngest cousin, Tim, was one of the toddlers we’d leave behind whenever we wanted to head out to the streets. BMX bikes would get pulled out of storage, sandals donned, and parental instructions discarded. Hours later, when we returned home dusty, hungry, and thoroughly grimy, we’d sneak into my aunt’s kitchen for a quick snack before catching a shower. One of my cousin’s friends was a tomboy – a gorgeous bod who could spit, fight, climb trees, and curse with the best of them. Though slightly younger, her maturity led me to worship her and the confidence she exuded.

Eventually, my father picked us up from Bombolulu and we went to live with him in Likoni. Dad arranged for an extra room for us through one of his buddies. The house was rectangular, Swahili architecture, complete with the white-washed limestone exterior walls. There was a hallway running down the middle – splitting the interior into two. The tin roof was nailed onto mangrove poles which extended into eaves where local goats rested in the hot and sticky afternoons. The interior was entirely open. Lacking a ceiling, and because the interior walls did not extend high enough, the rafters enabled the sharing of late night conversations, and daily cuisines. Meat frying in one room would translate into a salivating neighbor in another. A couple’s quarrel would result in knowing glances shot across the courtyard the next morning.

This also is true. That my mom experimented with coconut for cooking. She went native, taking time to grate the inside of 2 brown halves and extract the meaty pulp. She rinsed the grated powder to get rid of excess oil, and left the white powder out on a sieve to dry. I sat outside on the cement verandah, finishing a Barbara Kimenye smugglers’ tale. Using my peripheral vison, I kept an eye on a mother hen with her chicks, ready to jump and shoo them away any time she and her flock veered too close to the coconut. That evening we had rice for dinner. It turned a bit too rich in coconut oil; the equivalent of dressing your meal with coconut hair oil. The thick aroma did not leave your tongue until long after the meal itself was digested. Not to mention the permeating smell in the rest of the house after frying onions, garlic, clover, and coconut gratings together.

But Mombasa is much more than fresh fruit and delicious cuisine. Fort Jesus is a mainstay tourist spot. You haven’t seen Mombasa if you haven’t seen this 16th century Portuguese outpost. Originally a bastion of Lisbon’s territorial ambitions in the Indian Ocean, it sheltered numerous navigators and explorers, including one Vasco da Gama. My family and my dad’s friends, the Shaka’s, visited the museum one slightly windy afternoon. As the 2 families went about the fortress, listening to the guide’s presentation, we gasped on cue at human skeletal remains, and craned our necks into the well where occupants got fresh water during an Arab or British siege. Our parents looked on as the kids scrambled up and down the rusted canons. As usual, there was a local photographer at hand. We were corralled into various smiling permutations: just the kids; then boys only; then girls standing behind the canons; then each family together; and finally, the adults – alternating man and woman. Ever the salesmen, our now resident photographer extended his assignment by suggesting we continue our shoot by the ferry. For envious neighbors back in Nairobi, nothing says Mombasa more than the quintessential family portrait which captures Likoni ferry in the background.

That evening, we capped our day’s adventures by dining out. Coursing with energy than we knew what to do with, we kids cleared our meal in record time. “Mysterious Cat” had been ferrying us around all day. And we rushed headlong into it to practice the upward mobility that had been so well displayed by our parents all day. The boys made for the driver’s set, at which point I invoked my right as the eldest kid to sit on the driver’s seat. Swinging the locked steering wheel, while pressing on the brakes, was never more enjoyable. In control, we gave no thought either to our parents still chilling and drinking inside the restaurant, or to passing motorists who were repeatedly thrown off by the flashing brake lights and the possibility that the vehicle was backing out onto the road.

A few days later, on a Sunday morning, we drove out to the Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary. Time for a true safari. We were a 2-van convoy, the kids running amok and excited in Shaka’s Nissan, while the adults rode with my dad and his matatu crew. The area around Mwaluganje sanctuary is known as Shimba Hills, named after the lions that formerly roamed wild. Most of these big cats are gone. They’ve been pushed back as more and more of their habitat has been brought under cultivation by cashew nut and coconut plantations. The elephant population has also dwindled, yet they often make their presence known either through fatal encounters with humans, or by destroying crops and property that now lays across their ancient migratory routes. The drive from Likoni takes about 2 hours. We got to the main gate around midday, paid our entrance fees and began weaving in and out of the dirt paths hoping to spot a ndovu. We didn’t have long to wait. The elephant’s majesty is impressive. Especially when a herd of them flap their ears no more than a 100 meters from the glass and aluminum that ferried you to its habitat. Vehicles never seemed so flimsy as when compared to the trunk legs and wrinkled hides of an elephant bull. On the way back, I have distinct memories of a rowdy conversation in the adults’ van. We’d stopped at a wayside inn for a quick snack before the long ride back to Likoni. Sodas were quickly distributed amongst the kids, while the dads knocked back Tuskers, and the mothers tea. My mom was the main participant. I remember wondering whether she was simply thrilled at the family’s time together, or whether she too, for once, had tasted some of what Bachus offers mortals.

Sun & Sand

dscn0525

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dscn0517