Song for My Ancestress (Part II)

 

Grandma’s house had a green wooden door. The timber had been cut into thin bamboo-like pieces, polished and put together using carpenter’s glue and nails. My great grandfather, who had made a career working with wood, had built her home right next to their own on a plot of land Gathiri had helped her parents buy.

Later, after buying land in what had previously been a colonial sisal plantation, Juja, grandma moved. Not having the capital to purchase new material and build a permanent structure, she opted to tear down her tin shack three-roomed house and re-use the iron sheets for her new home. The tin roofing was carefully pried free from the nails; and the timber was cautiously set aside in the hopes of rejoining the house. After the whole house had been torn apart, her furniture was piled into a lorry and the long drive to Juja Farm commenced. That first night, after arriving and unloading everything, they slept in the open – exposed to the elements and, back then, woodland savannah teeming with a colorful array of wildlife.

Decades later, I’ve often heard that locals warned the arriving party not to build on the site they’d chosen but their advice fell on deaf ears. During the April school holidays when I’d visit grandma, the house would occasionally seep water through the floor or through the back wall. Every rainy season, behind the house, there existed a swamp – with the mandatory, obnoxiously loud, male bull frog.

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Grandma in a white blouse with a colleague during a 1961 trip to Israel

My mom says grandma was not an especially gifted businesswoman. Having spent much of her career in white collar positions, she was slow in adapting to the rigors of the jua kali (self-employed) sector. Some of my earliest memories of her are as a charcoal seller, operating a kiosk in Gikambura, on one of the back alleys that faced away from the market. It was in those same shadowy spaces that I’d hear Zaire’s Mbilia Mbel and Franco take over Kenyan airwaves with their seductive Lingala rhumba.

Grandma was, however, a gifted farmer. She could wrench the fruits of the earth from what had been previously barren soil. Her Juja neighbors thought her mad when she planted, of all things, trees on her farm. “Trees don’t grow here!” they vowed, using the same warning tone they’d invoked about the swampy building site. They were wrong. My grandma’s compound became one of the few where you could see trees. The area is flat, grassland savanna; trees can be seen from miles away. Whenever we went to visit, the landscape mostly populated with thorny acacia trees, the tall blue gums and the flaming Jacaranda outside her house served as a navigational bearing. Her fruit orchard was soon producing pawpaws and passion fruit – previously unheard of in Juja. During the passion fruit season, her visits to our house meant an abundance of fruit. It was from her that I first observed the, yet unproven, (pseudo)science of identifying male vs. female pawpaw seeds. Apparently, if you dangle a needle from the end of a thread just on top of, but not touching a pawpaw seed, the needle will be magnetically attracted to the seed if it’s male – or female, I forget exactly how this works. All the same, I have memories of my dad and I attempting to separate viable male vs. female pawpaw seeds under grandma’s keen tutelage.

Her attempts at animal husbandry were equally successful. She could turn a single ewe and ram into a worthy herd in no time. Sheep give birth about twice a year. We’d visit one year to witness her flock dwindle to 5 – courtesy of hyenas as the sheep were grazing, worms, or coughs – and return a year or two later to see a flock of almost 30, all reared from the original 5. We used to make fun of how lambs that were left behind as the rest of the herd went out to graze during the day, would follow her around the house and garden. She had Abel’s gift and was a veritable sheep whisperer.

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I’d travel to Juja in the company of my mother, younger sisters, and grand uncle and his family. Usually we’d use their cars – split between two convoys. Our first stop was often the newly opened Uchumi Hyper Supermarket. Over the years Uchumi Ngong Road has lost the prestige with which it was first opened. Back in the day, this was the height of middle class respectability. The red and white plastic shopping bags spoke volumes about a family’s ability to climb up the ladder. This was the spot to pick the (almost) mandatory groceries: packets of sugar, tea leaves, salt, cooking oil, maize and wheat flour, loaves of sliced bread, etc. On times when we’d make the journey without my grandma’s brother, my mom would hoist the package onto her back – the quintessential Kikuyu woman.

Using public transport to get to Juja was arduous. It meant a bus to town, then a number 237 van to Thika, though we’d actually alight at Juja/Muchatha. And yet that was just half the journey. At Muchatha we’d have to sit and wait until one of those fame-me-face-you trucks converted into passenger vans arrived, and got fully packed with people, goods, and often domestic animals. Kids such as myself and younger sisters, obviously didn’t need a sit so we’d stand in between rows of adults – lost in the dank, sweaty interior of the van. It was usually much better if the van was not covered with a tarpaulin sheet. That way I could stretch out and swing back and forth as the vehicle lurched in and out of potholes. But that also meant exposure to the midday savanna sun and dust. Often we’d alight at Juja Farm and embark on the last quarter of the journey by foot. This route often passed by the Harris farmhouse – a white family that had settled here ranching and practicing horticulture. With all these adventures, accompanying Baba Kamau to my grandma’s, his eldest sibling’s, house was always a lot more enjoyable. Often we’d get to grandma’s place by about midday; this gave us a couple of hours to prepare lunch – usually a couple of chickens or a goat if there were enough of us AND we’d informed grandma before hand so she could prep the barbecue. If we drove there, it was also more likely that we’d all head back home in the evening, often getting back to Ngong very late in the evening eager to forego dinner and jump straight into bed before school the next day.

Sometimes though, my sisters and I would be left behind – especially at the beginning of school holidays. We’d stay there for 2 to 3 weeks, until my mom came back to pick us up, or we’d head back home in the company of Njoro, my mom’s youngest brother. Staying in Juja for the holidays meant taking the animals out to graze in the morning. Sometimes I’d only have to get them to the herdsman and he’d keep them for the day before I picked them up in the evening. One school holiday I accompanied Wa Ngoiri, grandma’s herdsman, everyday. I remember having to do a lot of walking, and always coming back in the afternoon famished. Or I’d join other village boys and together we’d herd the animals, often under the supervision of an adult. Working in bands of boys, we’d get someone’s dogs and recruit them into a hunting party. I remember once capturing a baby antelope, courtesy of one of the dogs, killing it and taking half of it as my counterpart took home the other half.

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Sometimes Njoro would not only take us back home, he’d also visit Ngong at the beginning of vacation and take me back with him. Back then he was wild enough that my parents felt the need to warn him not to spend too much time in Nairobi’s movie halls before getting to Juja. He’d partly grown up in Maringo section of Nairobi – as a “born tao” (someone born in town) he was suave and cool in a way his village buddies could not comprehend. For instance, he could navigate the city’s traffic at a time when most of his Juja friends had only been to the city once or twice – if at all – mostly on day trips organized by the school.

One such trip from Ngong to Juja unraveled into much drama. We’d already made it to Nairobi CBD, embarked onto a 237 minibus, and we were just about to alight at Muchatha. As we standing up, and Njoro was maneuvering a bag of dried maize my mom had given him for grandma, he accidentally hit one of the window panes next to him and broke it. The bus conductor as well as the driver were up in arms. There was no way we could leave, they said, without having paid for the damages. Needless to say, we missed our Muchatha stop and kept on bickering with the bus operators all the way to the final stop at Thika. I think there was even mention of police station to force Njoro to hand over cash for the damages. I’m pretty sure he had some money on him, courtesy of my mom, but being the smooth operator that he believed himself to be, he had no intention of parting with it. The decision was finally made that I’d head back with the bus, get down at Muchatha, go see grandma about some money for the broken window and return with it. Meanwhile, Njoro plus all our luggage would be held ransom until I returned.

Disembarking from Muchatha, I caught the face-me-face-you truck and made it to Juja Farm. My twelve-year-old mind calculated that instead of walking all the way to grandma’s house it made more sense to go to Mr. Harris’s house, take money from him which he’d surely get back from grandma, and hence set right back on rescuing Njoro. I walked to the white farmhouse, raised on a platform above ground, and with a verandah all around it. I’d never been here before, and we’d not been previously introduced to each other. I knew of him based on what both grandma and Njoro talked about. Grandma would visit his house once in a while; and Njoro would eventually work on the family farm tending vegetables. I’m fascinated to think about what they’d have talked about – grandma and Mr. Harris. Language was certainly not an issue. Grandma’s English was impeccable, so much so that her Juja neighbors nicknamed her Mama Njoroge wa Githongo, i.e. Njoroge’s mother who also speaks English. That she could converse with a white man in his language, without any fear, must have endlessly astonished her neighbors.

For them, this was another reminder of how much Gathiri, or Nyina wa Njorogo, as most of them knew her, had attempted to break away from the female gender roles pre-assigned to her. If I remember correctly, I met Mr. Harris and 2 or 3 other family members. I introduced myself and explained what had happened. I underlined that grandma would get him his money back but that I needed it urgently, before Njoro ended up in prison. Mr. Harris indeed handed over KSHS 500. I can’t imagine what he’d have thought of the tale! I rushed back only to meet Njoro at Muchatha. He’d walked away by leaving my bag full of clothes with the driver, and made it home with the bag of maize. He was to return the next day to retrieve my clothes and compensate the bus operators for the broken window. There was nothing else to do but to get back onto another face-me and finally head to grandma’s house, minus my luggage. In the subsequent weeks, a never-ending twist of events resulted in me permanently separated from my luggage. Njoro went back a few times but never came back with the clothes. One pair of jeans had plastic gems embedded underneath the front waistband and I was quite fond of it. I hated having to part with it!

The rest of the vacation was thankfully uneventful. In addition to herding grandma’s cattle, goats, and sheep, I’d run errands to the village shop. When my cousins were around, grandma only entrusted me with  purchasing cigarettes for her. This was a big job for me; and I remember her asking me to bring them straight back to her without showing my cousins. It felt thrilling to be entrusted with such an important task. Eventually, however, smoking prematurely ended grandma’s life – a result of lung complications, most likely lung cancer.

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Years later, Gathiri would move in with us in the last months of her life. One day, grandma was out in the yard; she’d taken a walk outside the house, and was re-entering the house through the kitchen. Just a few meters from the door, she slipped, probably tripping on one of the many stones and pebbles that litter our yard. Weak, grandma fell face first. Sitting inside the house, I doubt I could have heard her frail voice from such a distance; on my way out the kitchen for an entirely different reason, I spotted grandma struggling to get off the ground and back on her feet. Her previously full bosom had now turned flat and emaciated; and she was hoarsely calling out to my mother, “Annie, Annie!”

 

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Out to Town

My first encounter with Kenya’s HIV/AIDS pandemic was during the 1989 Nairobi Agricultural Show. My dad’s eldest brother, Baba Amos, invited me to accompany him and some of his kids to the event. The Agricultural Show of Kenya has been a mainstay of Nairobi’s social scene for the last half century. Living in Gikambura, going to the ASK was a big ass deal! This was a trip that endowed you with major street cred.

Just imagine, you’d take a bus to town, dressed in your best outfit from the previous Christmas season. Getting on the bus, on its own, would already make you the recipient of serious envy from your village counterparts. Then of course, once you got to town you’d get to view tall buildings – skyscrapers that seemed to sway with the wind when you looked up. These views made for stories you could use to shut your buddies up as you displayed how suave you were. And then there was the food. French fries, more popularly known as chips, soda, and candy were all delicacies that you could look forward to on a trip to town. Finally, the ASK was well known for its gaudy paraphernalia. You’d come home with sunglasses – a novelty in the village – paper sun visors that were attached to your head using a rubber band, and if you were really lucky, perhaps a cheap, brightly colored watch.

Heading back home from the ASK, one also always brought back brightly colored posters. This time round, I came back armed with blood red ads about HIV, its spread, and the use of condoms. Sex, and STDs, didn’t particularly make much sense to me, but I could appreciate the fear with which adults around me discussed this new disease. Within days, the ABCs of combating HIV/AIDS – Abstinence, Be faithful, or Condomize – were plastered all over our tin metal walls, pasted using a sticky, pancake-like mixture of wheat flour and cold water.

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I spent much of the 90s reading Parents magazine. I relished the portrait sketches that the monthly journal published for its adult audience. While there was nothing overtly pornographic about its content, Parents regularly discussed sex – especially as it pertained to the lives of heterosexual married couples.

It is here that writers informed me that HIV/AIDS was an STD. Adding this knowledge to what we were learning in Home Science – a school subject that taught young Kenyan pupils how to be better domestic managers – I began to understand the implications of the disease. It is here, too, that I read how the remains of those who had succumbed to the virus, especially in the early, scary years, were wrapped up in plastic bags and hurriedly buried by the government. There was much shame and terror in these tales, and I returned to them often. I could soon match colorful cover to gory details in the content within. I re-read the names of the participants in these sagas of the AIDS epidemic and simultaneously sympathized, even as I relished my voyeur position vis-a-vis their horror.

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A majority of students who successfully complete the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) have at one point or another encountered the following prompt for their English composition: “The Day I Went to the City.” This theme is especially a staple for English teachers outside the major urban areas. Going to the metropolis is an event worth memorializing using grade 6 language skills. Often, to score really well, a student must inject a profusion of bombastic words, as well as archaic sayings and expressions. If you truly wish to get an A, begin somewhere along the lines of, “Feeling as happy as a king, I whistled like a lark, and left my family flabbergasted at my excitement.” Suffice it to say that Ernest Hemingway’s simple prose would have garnered him a fail, and possibly lashes on his backside.

With me, (this is another staple of Kenyan English – a consequence of our varied multilingual heritage) I was not particularly amused on one of my first visits to Nairobi CBD. I was around 6 and had accompanied my mom to town so I could visit the dentist. An employee of the soon-to-be-defunct Kenya National Assurance Ltd. mom was entitled to health insurance for herself and family. A benefit of this, if you wish to call it that, is that I got to visit the dentist regularly. This time round we were dealing with potential cavities, and looking at how my teeth were already developing out of line. Having lost my milk teeth, my new teeth needed to be perfect. The numbing injection, the drilling, and the fillings were only worth the discomfort because I later got to choose a slice of cake at the upscale Thorn Tree Hotel. Talk about paradox – walking out of the dentist’s office only to add more cavity-causing sugar into my diet.

Mum had to go back to work for the afternoon. However, I couldn’t simply hang around the office till it was time to head back home. The solution was to speak with one of the drivers/conductors that she knew on the Nairobi-Gikambura route and ask them to keep an eye on me as I rode back home alone. This was big boy stuff! I looked forward to sharing my adventure with kids back at home; I’d get to explain how I’d taken the bus, ridden all the way to Gikambura on my own, and managed to get home safely.

I sat by the window, looking out at trees and buildings sped by. I could recognize some of the towns and villages we passed by: Satellite, where my cousins lived, Kawangware, Dagoretti Center, and finally Thogoto. I could certainly recognize the big “Welcome to Gikambura” sign that Sportman Cigarettes had out up as you approached the town. I got off the bus just a few meters from where uncles Njoro and Martin used to take their homemade vehicles for a ride. Back then, this was a sloping tarmacked road where wooden go-karts could speed down, often attaining speeds of up to 40mph. The two of them, thick as thieves, would ignore warnings about dangerous this thrill seeking was. My grandma could only imagine what would happen if the two, speeding downhill at hair-raising speeds, met head-on with a passenger bus. The potential fatalities made my grandma very strict about Njoro not going on these adventures. She shouldn’t have bothered. More than once she caught him flying down the slope on yet another go-kart invention. Thankfully, they both survived boyhood with no broken limbs but many a scratch.

Ode to the Wanderlust (Part I)

I still remember the ride in a dinghy van, dark green in color, if my 6 year old memory serves me right. I can even recall stopping at a police checkpoint by the KBC broadcasting station just past Karen. When we got to Ngong, we turned off the tarmac road and took to the gentle slopes bordering the town.

Saikeri is located on the leeward, much drier, side of the Ngong Hills. It was during the dry season, so the route was dusty as hell. 3 hours later, when we finally got to Aunty Wamaitha’s house, we were all caked in a brown layer of fine dust. We were helping her move. Her husband, her kids, and some of her in laws had joined her in this new venture. They had just recently bought previously unfarmed land in a community that supported Masai ranchers and herders. They planned to settle in “town” for a little bit, before eventually moving to their actual farm a little bit farther on into the hinterland.

Then, as now, classifying the tiny hamlet we had arrived at as a town was a stretch of the imagination. When I recently re-visited the town it had grown to a one-street line of dukas – including at least one or two “watering holes.” One cannot be expected to survive  the bumpy three hour ride over arid scrubland without the redemption of a frothy adult beverage. Equally, partaking of a heavy meal to quite the hunger pangs is essential. When my dad and I accompanied Wamaitha back in 1989, I remember a goat barbecue for our welcome meal. In the evening, the green van took of for its return trip to Gikambura, while we spent the night, planning to head back the next day.

I don’t remember much of our journey back from Saikeri. I would even go as far as saying it was uneventful. My dad, on the other hand, would vehemently disagree! From Saikeri to Gikambura is about 20 miles, in his wisdom, my dad decided that the best idea was for him, and my 6 year old self, to walk back. Needless to say, we cut across open brush, foot paths, and occasionally proper roads – untarred. Perhaps he was hoping to accidentally “lose” me on the way. Then as we got closer to home, and the reality of my mother’s wrath, he changed his mind. Alas, by then it was too late for the trek had began. We had to either walk back to Saikeri and wait for the rickety mini buses which showed up every market day, or keep walking. I, for one, was totally over the whole walking thing. By the time we got to the halfway mark, I was ready to die of thirst and starvation – give up the ghost. Dad had no choice but to place me on his shoulders and keep walking. I still remember that we eventually got back home very late, and even more tired!

 

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Many years after, I came up with the brilliant idea of undertaking a solo trek across the Ngong Hills. Keep the following in mind as you judge my depravity: the range of the Ngong Hills essentially dominates the skyline from my house. From grades 1 through  8, I commuted to Ngong Hills Academy under the shadow of these slopes and valleys. These small mountains practically hovered over me ever since we moved to Ngong in 1990. One semester, my school organized a one day excursion to scale some of the more manageable parts of it. I joined approximately 50 schoolmates plus several teachers, and maybe even 1 or 2 armed administrative police. One girl fainted on our way up; it was then explained to the rest of us that we must ascend more slowly so we don’t suffer the same fate. The cops accompanied us because there had been several muggings of hikers on the hills.

Mentioning crime on Ngong Hills brings up several raw memories. The first dates back to 1978 when J. M. Kariuki, a Kenyan politician, was found murdered and partly devoured by wild animals. He had been an outspoken critic of the Jomo Kenyatta government. The last time he was seen alive, he was in the company of several Criminal Investigation Department officers from Nairobi’s Central Police Station. He went missing until his body was discovered by a Masai herdsman.

More recently, Muindi, a Kenyan cyclist training for an international meet, was killed somewhere in the Ngong Hills. The expensive training bike he’d been riding was never recovered – prompting many to believe this was a daylight robbery gone wrong. Others, however, insinuated that his untimely demise may have been connected to an increasingly competitive Kenyan cycling scene and this unnatural attrition of top athletes was sure to benefit someone. In any case, our school-related expedition benefited from a police escort to ensure no fifth graders went back home missing lunch money, not to mention their precious little limbs.

For that reason, trekking the Ngong Hills alone was somewhat nerve-wracking. I didn’t even bother finding a partner in crime: none of my friends are so whimsical as to embark on such a fool’s errand.

 

Of Bananas, Coconuts, & Oreos (Part I)

So, the other day in class I was introduced – by my students – to two fascinating concepts: bananas and coconuts.

Bananas are yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Coconuts are brown on the outside, white on the inside. Have you caught on to the similarity: white on the inside? Students from mainland China and Hong Kong explained that bananas are used as a metaphor to define people of Chinese ethnicity who have adopted European mannerisms: yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Along the same lines, explained an American student of Indian descent, coconuts are deployed to describe a younger generation of Indians who grew up in the United States, speak no Hindi, Punjabi, or Gujarati, but have ties to Mother India through their parents: brown on the outside, white on the inside.

Aside from the retrogressive use of brown and yellow, terms that have not quite transcended their history of oppression in the same way “black” has, there was much that intrigued me about this kind of cultural analysis. On the one hand, I’m in the midst of writing an article about the use of African cuisine, especially in urban areas, to explore hierarchies of (symbolic) power. That bananas and coconuts are, first and foremost, fruits opens up a host of questions as to why communities repeatedly resort to food as a motif to discuss race relations, power differentials, and discrimination.

The other reason why I was fascinated by this discussion was more personal. What fruit, if any, would be most appropriate in describing the kinds of cultural mixing that forms my own personality?

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Let’s step back to kindergarten. I attended Silverbeck Academy for pre-school at a time when academies were still portent symbols of bourgeois social mobility. This counted twice as much in the rural Gikambura area where Silverbeck was located. The institution had both interior and exterior markers of class. On the one hand, its facilities were made of stone and mortar; windows had glass panes, unlike Gicharani Primary School – a public school up the road where paned windows were largely a foreign concept. Internally, Silverbeck used class trips to set itself apart.
There’s one particular excursion that is ingrained in my mind. The school took us to Wilson Airport, a small commercial airport outside the Nairobi CBD. Then, and even now, the airport is frequented by smaller planes, not the international Boeing 737s that one would find at the much bigger Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. It was a great day for an outdoor trip; the tarmacked runway was blindingly sun-lit when we arrived. After all 10 or so kindergarteners got off the bus, we walked around the airfield amongst the planes. Just touching the sleek metal must have been fun. The tail license numbers on the small engine Cessnas must have looked erringly familiar to the numbers and letters activities we did in class. The coolest part of the trip was getting into one of the 8-seater planes, sitting in the cockpit, and having my picture taken holding onto the controls.
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In other words, the sense of being different has always been with me. As I’ve grown older, I’m less perturbed by this outsider-looking-in feeling. I think this is part of why what’s foreign/unfamiliar has always been attractive to me. Back in those Silverbeck days, there was an outdoor cinema once a month in my village. Folks from the government’s Ministry of Sports & Cultural Affairs would show up in a van, rig up a white sheet for a screen, crank the generator, and project old westerns after dusk.

You can’t imagine how big of a deal these events were! They served as a lifeline for teenagers and young adults, connecting them to a “modern” world that barely condescended to visit the dusty market square that we called a town. Those images, those accents, and that music all pointed to a life larger than any of us could comprehend. And this is before we even begin to break down what it meant to view white people with guns riding at high speed towards, or away from, danger. Missing a movie show was tantamount to a midlife crisis, or worse.

My dad’s side of the family tells stories about their escapades attending these movies in the late 80s. The venue was often the outdoor pitch where our local soccer club hosted weekend matches against other teams in the region. One evening when a film was showing, aunt Wanja decided to attend. She sat upfront, on a rare patch of grass, and bundled up to keep warm. She had on an oversized coat, perhaps borrowed from an older sibling to keep the chill away. It goes without saying that there were no public restrooms available at the movie showing. As a result, movie-goers invented all kinds of ways to cater for their bathroom needs. The men, as you can imagine, would simply find a bush to the side and “do” it. Women had less options. And attending to a number 2, by either men or women, required even more skill.

On this particular night, my aunt must have sat next to a member of the audience who was particularly skillful. He/she did their thing, and wrapped it up using a polythene bag. They then deposited the package into my aunt’s coat pocket. Somehow, as she concentrated on John Wayne surviving, yet again, a fusillade of bad guy bullets, she missed both the stench and the newly added weight in her garment. It was not until the film ended, and they were heading back home, that she drove her hands deep into her coat pockets to warm them up and keep away the numbness. Her scream must have woken up any sleeping devils. Her curses would have made a sailor blush. She pulled her right hand out of her now very heavy, very smelly pocket and shook it till her fingers almost dropped off. Running to a patch of a grass, she proceeded to rub her hand and wipe off the offending goo. Getting it out of her coat pocket was another story altogether. All this time, the big village boys were having the time of their lives: pointing and celebrating her misfortune in between sending missiles of rotten eggs across the departing audience.

Getting home from a movie was rarely a peaceful affair; it generally involved fist fights or stone throwing. But not even the threat of human feces could keep us away. It was always a welcome addition of excitement to our usually mellow rural hamlet. Most importantly, however, the screen helped us imagine novel identities we’d otherwise not have experienced. A few days after watching a western, I put on a yellow rain coat and swaggered just like I’d seen the main character to. The coat was new, and came to just below my knees; the proportions couldn’t have been better if it had been meant to be worn out in the wild, wild west. And with my hands deep in my pocket, I thought that my twirling coat tail would have done any cowboy proud.

The Memory of that First Illicit Love (Contd.)

Silverbeck Academy moved around a few times before it found a permanent home. One of its earlier locations was a few blocks from Gikambura’s commercial center next to the proprietor’s house. On my way back from school I’d find a pebble or a tin can and kick it all the way home. Well, as close to home as I dared since that kind of soccer exercise could ruin my school shoes making my parents not too happy. Having worked up enough of a tear in my shoe, usually my right one, I’d be sent off to the cobbler. He had lost one leg just above the knee. I suppose I was never particularly alarmed by his disability because I do not remember asking what happened to his leg. He was a good cobbler; after mending my shoe he’d warn me against kicking stones and tin cans because that ruined my shoes. I don’t think he had any fear of me taking his advice since that would have surely dried up some of his business.

Gikambura, had a main street arranged around a market. Shops surrounded the rectangular retail space, leaving a one-way traffic lane all around. My grandmother once ran a charcoal business here. I’d visit – after school and weekends presumably – and sit with her. The venture didn’t last very long but, my first memory of Congolese music is from that shop. I don’t think she played music there but there must have been other Lingala enthusiasts around her, all willingly and obnoxiously sharing their taste in music. Mbilia Bel’ “Nadina” sank into the depths of my young mind, in much the same way coal dust wafted up my nose making me sneeze.

It was also in one of these back alleys that I first experimented with being a hobo. I’m not quite sure where I was coming from but I do remember I was hungry. As I walked home I turned a corner and oh my! What did I see on the ground other than a couple of pancakes. They were stale and somewhat dry but they looked good enough to me. With some hesitation I picked several up and began chewing. I was so afraid I’d get sick I figured that if I only ate about half of each I would be safe. And that’s what I did; I took several bites from each before tossing it back on the ground. I don’t actually remember getting sick so my plan must have worked!

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The first home I can actually remember my family living in holds several memories for me. In one, I recall our house help, Wanjiru M. For the most part she was a responsible adult taking care of a toddler; other times not so much. Accurately or not, I have memories of lying on a couch and waiting apprehensively as she went to pick a tree vine to whip my young behind. I have no idea what I had done to elicit the proverbial rod, and if there had been a lesson mingled in that corporal punishment I forget.

Wanjiru also served as mom’s “bird.” Let me explain. Mom would come home from work after spending the day in the city. Then, inexplicably to me, she would ask me about the naughty things I had been up to all day. If I asked how she knew I had been out on the main road, a location I was warnd to avoid due to reckless drivers, she would answer a “bird” told her. Well, it didn’t take me long to figure out the bird was right there with me. Talk about sleeping with the enemy!

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One day I came home from school to find a brand new chicken coop. It smelled of newly-cut wood and the sawdust placed in it. Wonderful! In minutes I was inside the structure, tall enough for me to stand, and I could look out through the wire mesh. Obviously, I also had to explore the roof and so up I went, and inevitably bent some of the tin roofing. Whatever the case, I suspect I could not have been happier if that hen house had been transported into my bedroom. Can you imagine what a cool bed it would have made! I think my fascination with structures, carpentry, and building began then.