I Eagerly Anticipated this Next Chapter

I’d waited patiently to hear back from the UWC committee on whether I was in or out. The expected deadline came and went, and still nothing. I waited a couple more days before contacting them. I was eager, but I also did not wish to be bugging them and possibly be a nuisance. By end of April I was ready for the waiting to be over. I wanted to learn one way or the other; should I keep holding my breath or should I give up and move on?

I walked from home to Vet in search of a Simu ya Jamii, public phone booth. This was in 2002 and the two main cell phone companies were battling for market share. Safaricom and Kencell had each rolled out 2G infrastructure to encourage customers to join their network. Kencell had neon pink booths strategically placed at busy supermarkets and bus stops. Safaricom had distributed green handsets that resembled older land lines. These were cheaper when charged by the minute, and were often more readily available.

I walked up to a Safaricom phone booth, essentially a tall stool on which had been attached an umbrella to unsuccessfully keep out the equatorial sun. The operator sat in the shadow jingling coins and chewing gum. I handed her the number to Dr. Ondeko’s office. It was a weekday and Rose picked up.

Hello, this is Ng’ang’a Muchiri, and I wanted to check in about my application.

Hi Ng’ang’a, we’ve been waiting to hear from you! Did you not get our response? You were selected as one of this year’s finalists, and offered a scholarship to UWCSEA.

Oh wow! That’s great, and no I never got the message.

We sent it out weeks ago. We almost thought you’d declined it. You should come by the office as soon as possible so we can start processing your documents for departure.

I was super excited about all this, and couldn’t even fathom the adventure awaiting me. But I’m also extremely cautious in nature and did not want to get all excited about something that would only vanish out of grasp. I wanted to be double-triple sure this was no hoax before allowing myself to revel in the joys of it. I walked back home in a bit of a daze. Showered and changed; I’d decided to head over to the UWC office and ascertain exactly what kind of con these folks were running. Either I had a full ride to Singapore or something fishy was up. I gave my family a random excuse as to why I wanted to head to town, saying I wanted to go check the post office mailbox for  mail.

I went straight to Hurlingham and spoke to Rose and Irene. And for the second time that day, I was thrilled beyond words. They shared with me my offer letter, detailing a full tuition ride, travel expenses to Singapore and back, plus pocket money. I was floored by this. Less than six months earlier I’d been begging Dr. Pragnell to let me into the Aga Khan Academy IB program, and here I now was, getting a weekly stipend to do just that – in addition to the wonderful travel opportunities to be had? This was the jackpot!

Now, I couldn’t wait to give the news to my parents. This was real as real can be! Rose had shared with me an offer letter, with the UWCSEA logo in turquoise. There was no going back. I learnt that the next steps involved filing for a passport ASAP, communicating with UWCSEA about which subjects I wanted to pursue in IB, and eventually booking my ticket to Singapore. In many ways, I could not get over the incredible sadness that my maternal grandma had passed on just a year before this good fortune came to be. It would have been such a pleasure to share it with her; she who had traveled to Israel as a trade unionist in the early sixties. I felt a sense of her pioneering spirit.

In the waning days of a Moi kleptocracy, government services were not offered as inalienable rights to all citizens, but rather as favors to oil the wheels of political cronyism. Nowhere was this more applicable than at Nyayo House, where the immigration department was based. Their passport application process was slow and tedious. A travel document was not yours by virtue of being Kenyan, but the regime’s to hand out like candy to the few deemed worthy. Passport applications took months. You only ventured into this labyrinth of low intellect civil service if you knew someone-who-knew-someone. I knew Rigitha. His wife and my mother were avid farmers, and they’d gotten along at agricultural extension training sessions.

I started to collect my documents. I needed my birth certificate, my national identification card, an application form properly filled in, and KSHS 5000. Imagine my dismay when I discovered that I’d lost my ID. I hadn’t had the damn thing for more than six months, and now, when I needed it like yesterday, it was nowhere to be seen! Father came back from Mombasa where he’d been trading in potatoes to help me figure out this mess. He quickly secured a birth certificate from the Kiambu contacts he knew. We then went to Westlands and luckily a new ID was issued within two weeks. I went back to Nyayo House. I filled in my application, duly including a Kenyan of sound mind who could confirm that I was a law abiding citizen who deserved a passport. Mr. Kamau Mungai, my co-signer, had been a classmate of my maternal grandma, way back then. In fact, it turns out Mzee Kamau was the class prefect. My grandmother had some not-so-fond memories of him tattling on his peers for indiscipline. Decades later, our families had become really close. I’d swing by their house every evening to pick up our supply of milk.

Co-signing a passport application was no child’s play. Legally, if the government ever had to spend money on my repatriation back home, they could come after Mzee Kamau to recover their costs. What? Having submitted the forms, the waiting game began. Two weeks went by, then a month. Still nothing. I went back to Nyayo House and asked to see Rigitha. He made some noise about following things up. I agreed to come back. It was now the second week of July, I was meant to flying to Singapore in mid-August. Time was running out. I made another trip to Immigration. Still nothing. At the end of July, with less than two weeks to go, I’d turned desperate. The UWC committee was getting anxious. They worried I wasn’t doing enough to secure my passport, as though I kept government bureaucrats in my pocket. They recommended I get in touch with a Mr. Mumo. He worked at Nyayo House, so had contacts, but more importantly, his own son was heading to UWC in New Mexico, USA. Surely he’d be sympathetic to my plight. Mumo was unavailable the first time I tried to see him. When we did have a face-to-face, he made non-committal noises. This simply won’t do. Nyayo House was way beyond my parents’ experience. They could not help much. I stopped by Aunty Maggie’s Nation Center office one afternoon having walked away from Nyayo House still empty handed. She was irate. She was like, who’s been working on this document for you? She wanted to see this Rigitha fellow, right there and then. We headed back over to Nyayo House, Rigitha availed himself when we showed up at this office. I forget what excuses he offered, but Maggie was pretty clear the damn passport needed to be issued like last year. I think her haranguing worked. A week later Rigitha sent word to my house that I should go to the office the next day and pick up my brand new, five-year, passport. Not a moment too soon. It was now time to celebrate.

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This was an experience on a whole other realm, one I could hardly have dreamed of.

The first party was held at home. My parents pooled together some money for a goat, food, and refreshments – soda, and muratina. Invitations were sent out to my extended family, and the date was set, a Saturday no less, so folks won’t be at work. There’s a history to this. In the 1930s and 1940s, when Kenyan families sent out their young men and women for university studies in Britain, this was often done as a group effort. The entire community would unite and chip in cents and shillings until there was enough cash to cover the student’s airfare, room and board, and a small stipend. But there was also the important psychological preparation that the people endowed onto the students. A sort of blessing that would steel them against homesickness, substance abuse, irresponsible behavior, and failure. The extended family and the neighborhood showed up to send off their daughter or son and to remind them they are not alone. That the child has a people and a home who will always welcome him. And of course, there was always the aunt who’d jokingly be like: and don’t bring back a white spouse. Hahaha, just kidding! No, really! Don’t! And of course the parents would play along and defend their child’s choice in marriage partner, even as they too mulled trepidation at the possibility of an inter-racial marriage.

The goat was done to perfection. My dad, two of his brothers, and several friends took charge of this, as the men in the household often do. There’s that moment when five or six men grab on to a goat as the butcher slits its throat. An open container must be close by to collect the blood. Mutura is a delicious must-have. Can’t barbecue a goat and not prepare blood sausage with stewed, peppered meat and parts of the large intestine. My mother led the women’s effort. Aunty Wanja, my cousin Njeri, and Uncle Maina’s wife variously took charge of making chapati, stew, and mukimo. Had I known, I would have savored the smells much longer. The succulent stews and meats should have been etched in my memory more deeply, given that Kenyan cuisine would be unavailable for most of the next nine months.

Later in the afternoon, once every belly was brimming with good food, someone stood up and asked the gathering to join in prayer. Ours was a Christian home, after all. Baba Seret, a family friend, followed with a short speech about how I’d performed well in school, and that they all expected me to keep up the same level of effort and investment in my studies. My dad’s eldest brother, Baba Amos, spoke on behalf of the extended family. My paternal grandma looked on, approvingly. I had my cheap plastic camera with me, and photographed groups of family members: Uncle Kamau looking suave in athletic wear; Mother, one of my sisters, Aunty Wanja, and a bunch of cousins by the outdoor kitchen – my mother decked out in a colorful dress, meaning the cooking was done; grandma seated on a bench, eating, Macho Nne close by on one of our dining room chairs brought outside to accommodate guests.

The younger crowd hang back. It wasn’t until dusk that they took over: setting up a music system, and passing around cups of muratina. The tipsier they got, the louder the whole gathering became. Adults had moved indoors away from the chill. The men had commandeered a 20 liter demi-john of mead and were imbibing, slowly, so as not to get rowdy and possibly be kicked out of the house. My male cousins were now going all out. Waweru pontificated on how the Karugu clan was soon headed to America, where all dreams of financial independence were to be fulfilled. This trip to Singapore was going to be a big deal for me; to understand how crucial it was for my cousins, too, picture this: at 10pm that evening, a contingent of 10 young braves showed up. They’d walked from Gikambura after work, and since they were all macho, felt the need to take their time on the empty roads. They each came armed with a variety of clubs, stabbing knives, and walking sticks. No surprising this squad! Mother had to corral a few of the younger women to get them dinner, warm up uji, as I saw into any roast meat still left over from lunch. Once their hunger pangs were sated, they whispered around about a jug or two of that sweet smelling honey wine. I’d attended a previous post-circumcision ceremony held in my grandma’s hood in Gikambura; I knew these kids partied hard. But my Kangawa crew was strong. Karis represented; swaying to the blaring music, sipping from a metal cup, he shouted something like “Happy new Year” conflating holidays with out of tune merriment. When a few of us laughed, before hushing him, he proceeded to narrate about his injury months before KCSE. He’d broken a leg playing football, and been sent home to recover. Knowing that last minute revision was crucial for the big Form Four exams, I’d shared some of my resources with him. He expressed his gratitude with a lot of panache.

Those who lived close by meandered home in the dead of night. The folks from Gikambura left the next morning, after brunch. We agreed that I’d see them at least once more before flying out. I’d need to go hola at grandpa who hadn’t joined us. I was happy to say goodbye. There was cleaning up to do, but they’d also left me a couple of thousand shillings richer. The collection basket passed around late the previous evening had produced enough cash for a suitcase, a new pair of shoes, and a jacket. An homage to days gone by, when the community united to smooth a student’s relocation abroad. I knew SEA would provide me with school uniform, but my out-of-school wardrobe needed upgrading.

I’d been emailing with school officials, confirming my arrival date, and registering for classes. The principal of Upper School, which did the IB Diploma, seemed nice enough. I had no idea what to expect of her. In addition to choosing my higher and lower level courses, I decided to test the school’s attire regulations. Would dreadlocks be OK? I asked. Di Smart responded with a non-committal “the school had no hard line hair policy.” That was good enough for me.

Party number two. The UWC Kenya National Committee organizes an annual reunion. Students who are embarking on this adventure for the first time get to meet old hands, new graduates, and students in between IB1 and IB2. As expected, good food is a major part of the mix. My parents both attended. We each had to pay KSHS 300 to cover our buffet lunch. Students and parents started arriving at the venue around 1pm. Like in previous years, the event was hosted behind Dr. Ondeko’s office. A few parents mingle, but most are more shy than their boisterous youngsters, who having previously met each other, or perhaps reuniting after an year or more apart, are hugging and holding hands. I could see parents worry as they slowly noticed the prevalence of piercings on boys and weird hair styles on the girls. In addition to a free education, it must have seemed to them that UWC was also going to transform their children into rebellious aliens – a far cry to their former obedient selves. At Rose’s and Irene’s gentle urging, the gathering formed a queue around the table laden with goodies. Plates piled deep, guests sat and dug in.

Self introductions kicked off the more formal part of the ceremony. The UWC committee stepped forward and explained its mission. The members then invited families to know one another. Each student introduced themselves, and where they were studying, as well as the members of their party. Often it was just the parents, but some contingents included an uncle, cousins, or family friends. The lunch was open invite, as long as everyone made their individual contribution. We went round, listening and clapping as each student talked a bit about themselves. My family caused some laughs, especially after I introduced myself as Ng’ang’a Muchiri, and my dad stated his names as Muchiri Ng’ang’a. Dr. Ondeko concluded the event by inviting monetary donations to cater for students’ airfare, incidentals, etc. She extolled future graduates to also do their bit, given that current volunteers gave freely of their time. There was cake, distributed around the group in slices placed delicately on plastic plates. The parents, having warmed up to each other, chatted more freely now. They had shared interests. Situma’s parents and mine had previously ran into each other at Aga Khan. They chatted to catch up. I met Silvia, who was returning for her 2nd and final IB year at UWCSEA. I introduced her to my parents. And I could see a sigh of relief when they were able to put a face to far away Singapore, a destination which none of us had any immediate experience with. The four of us chatted, with Silvia answering my questions about classes, the school, the city. This was going to be my first time attending boarding school – quite unlike most other Kenyan high school students who are shipped off to distant schools for their KCSE education. Mom immediately warmed up to Silvia, exhorting her to keep an eye out for me. This was the last major event; from here on was a matter of counting down days before my first experience flying. I was now more visibly excited about this new adventure. I’d seen folks who had taken on the challenge, and emerged triumphant. For my parents, listening to Silvia’s dreams about attending college in the U.S., on a full ride, helped them see the opportunities that an I.B. diploma could open up for me.

Those last few weeks flew by. Rose and Irene had already set up with a preferred travel agent to book my flight to Singapore. I was to use Emirates, transiting through Dubai, with a short stop over in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Overnight, place names I’d barely heard of before became part of my vocabulary. My most recent experience with air travel had been at Silverbeck Academy, back in kindergarten. Our school organized a day trip to Wilson airport where domestic flights take off to all corners of the country. I’d been photographed inside one of those 12 seater planes. Now, I was packing to take a one-day international flight. I didn’t even want to think about what it meant to transit through an unknown airport, where Arabic would be the major language. I simply assumed that I’d be able to figure it out. Silvia was attending a youth leadership seminar; that meant she wouldn’t be flying to school till much later. And in any case, new students had to arrive several days earlier for orientation. The bottom line was that I was going to be solo. Sink or swim. I’d barely just started travelling by bus alone to Juja and now here I was, with no companion for a 20 hour flight.

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I trained my photographer’s eye on all the vistas spread out below us.

I flew out on a Sunday. All morning we’d been packing up. Mother prepared lunch; we were expecting a number of guests who were to accompany us to the airport. Shaka, one of my dad’s buddies from his days in Mombasa, came with a few friends. They’d been tasked with providing a van large enough to take everyone to the airport. Baba Seret came too, with Seret – a former Ngong Hills Academy classmate – her sister, and a cousin. We had lunch: chapati with beef stew. The idea was that I should tuck in proper, who knew what ghastly airline food I was to encounter before landing in Singapore. We were done with lunch around 1pm. My flight was departing at 7pm, but we’d allowed ourselves about 2 hours to make it to JKIA. Weekend traffic was usually pretty light in Nairobi, but we preferred to err on the safe side. Plus, we were all just excited. Travelling “abroad for further studies” was a big deal in the 90s. India, South Africa, The United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia had all been pretty popular destinations since the late 80s. No one had any idea which direction Singapore lay, but all that mattered was that you had to fly there.

Shaka had taken the BulBul route to our house, no idea why. That meant they’d had to park about 15 minutes away by foot.  The Vet route would have gotten them right to our driveway. At 2pm we gathered for prayers, Siameto taking charge to beseech God for journey mercies. We locked up the house, and I shouldered my sports jacket and a backpack. We headed out. Mother roped my suitcase and placed it on her back, wedging the rope on her palms so it rested on her shoulders. We took the steep path uphill to Uncle Robert’s. Good thing this was in August, the sludge that usually ran down the slope in rainy months had now turned into a fine dust. At the top of the hill, we stomped our shoes hard and ran them through the grass, trying to shake off the finely ground red powder. Siameto took a photo of Mama Carol saying goodbye to me. She took my right hand in hers and stared back at the camera. Her and her husband had been my godparents at my first confirmation into the Anglican Church of Kenya. They’d not reneged on their duties even after my family moved to the Catholic church. My religious godparents had always wished me well at school, taking time to send me the customary success cards that exam candidates hang on strings across the ceilings: a simple ruse to ward exam jitters. Once we were all loaded into the van, we waved off to the few neighbors who’d walked here with us. Mama Carol’s house was just 200m away, so she could walk there. Kahiri went back down the slope, letting my parents know they’d see him when they got back from the airport. This was truly it for me; I was on the first step of a journey into the unknown.

With no traffic on Ngong Road, this was going to be a quick trip. Karen, Bomas, and the Nairobi Animal Orphanage flew by. We’d gone past Wilson Airport, with its small twin engine planes. I wasn’t even interested. I was here for the real deal! Past Nyayo Stadium we turned right onto Mombasa Road, with luck, Embakasi and Mlolongo would both be pretty free of traffic and we’d be at the JKIA international departures in 20 minutes. Thinking back, I don’t remember unloading from the van, walking into the terminal, and checking in my luggage. My passport and ticket were both in order, so that all went hassle free. Then came that awkward moment when half my entourage wants to head back home, and the other half wanted to enjoy the outing to the max: hang around till they perceived that MY particular flight had taken off. In the midst of indecision, Siameto kept documenting this gathering. I have photos of me and my family, with Mama Mungais grand daughter, Siku, as our adpted sibling. Then there’s me with just the men, Shaka looking out from behind Baba Kareithi. Uncle Maina is standing next to my dad. In a third, I’m with Seret, her sister, her cousin, and my younger sisters. By now, I too was firmly in the leave camp. There was too much chaos swirling around, and within, me; not only was this my first time flying, and travelling abroad – hence super exciting – I was also going to be away from my family for almost nine months. That was a first, and I was battling the emotions that I’d avoided by attending high school as a day scholar instead of boarding. Aunty Maggie had managed to join us, accompanied by a friend. I’m photographed between the two of them. This was, I remember, moments after Maggie had thrust a couple of thousand shilling notes into my hand. Always generous, bless her heart. This cash was going to be a nice addition to my travel incidentals. I’m frowning in that photo. My facial expression fully capturing the swirl of emotions I was miserably trying to ride over.

Eventually, they all had to head back. Last goodbyes, hugs, and waves. I passed through airport security one last time, and headed to my gate. Worrying about my family was a new feeling. Although my dad would spend 2 months at a time at the coast, I’d always been at home. Not this time. Now I had to think about their security. It was barely 4 years since we’d had a burglary attempt at home. On its own the incident was not unusual. Security had gotten really bad in Kangawa; there were homes where thieves broke into monthly. Thugs returned to Kasale’s and Mama Leken’s to pick up whatever new electronics they’d purchased to replace the items stolen last month. It really was a joke as far as public safety, and the robbers had the calm demeanor of professionals. Might they make a return to our house? We’d been able to repel them and raised enough noise that neighbors joined our defense. Mwalimu Nzova rang out his security alarm. Flashlights could be seen up and down the neighborhood. Father banged on a window grill they’d been attempting to cut through with a hoe, farm implement turned into dangerous weapon. Thankfully the men on the outside did not try to breach our kitchen door. They’d concentrated their efforts on a living room window, judging that it was furthest from the bedrooms and so would least likely arouse us. Unluckily for them, Mother is a light sleeper. I dreaded calling home from Singapore only to learn that the next attack had been successful. Thugs could be rabid, and with three women in the house, I shuddered to imagine the havoc such violence could wreck on our home.

I watched my fellow passengers closely. I wanted to pick up on their suave looks as they navigated currency exchange, located their departure gates, sat, and snacked while waiting. I was all jelly, and partly envied these strangers their confidence. It really looked to me like they’d been born doing international air travel. I was anxious that they could see right through my Aga Khan Academy façade to the little boy inside me, who’d often been sent home from school for unpaid tuition. We finally got our call to board. I remembered not to forget my backpack, and entered the belly of the plane. As apprehensive as I was, I also couldn’t help smiling. This was an experience on a whole other realm, one I could hardly have dreamed of. Locating my window seat with the help of a flight attendant, I still felt a bit of an impostor. This was an event I’d have expected for my much wealthier cousins, not for me. Settling into my seat, I’d truly been charmed to get the choice of window or aisle seat when checking in – not wanting to miss a single second of this voyage – it truly sunk in just how lucky I’d been. For the next decade, I’d always fly on the window seat, craning my neck every which way to catch sight of the clouds, the cities below, or perhaps a mountain or river. I trained my photographer’s eye on all the vistas spread out below us. Take off was sensational. Soon, as we soared into the air above JKIA, I was now the one off to send a letter; the one to go off and inform my father about the tattered state of my school uniform. I smiled, reflecting on this childhood play song. Certainly, worry was one of the emotions I felt, but largely I eagerly anticipated this next chapter. Now that I’d just tasted the pleasures of foreign travel, I had no intention to stop until I’d gotten to know the whole wide world, as well as I knew the footpaths of Kangawa.

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.

A Gorgeous Woman in a Movie Theater

Walking across Bul, my old haunts, with Lorraine gave me mucho social capital. This was quite an improvement from the surreptitious caresses I had previously stolen while watching action flicks in a makeshift cinema hall. I was in form 2. This is the age when high schoolers begin to stretch, bend, or wholly ignore the rules. Form 1 is all about survival, and the excitement of finally leaving behind the churlish world of primary school. Often, you’ll be bullied as older and tougher students set you straight on how beneath them you are on the totem pole of high school hierarchies. Monos, the as the sniveling, low-life form ones are called, have two options: cry for help, and be mama’s baby for your entire high school career, or bite your lip, persevere, and look forward to meting out the same punishment to junior boys next year.

Well, Aga Khan Academy had no space for bullies. No government minister, or wealthy business magnate, was paying a fortune in tuition just for their kid to get knuckled every afternoon. Aside from that, my cohort never got a younger breed of monos on whom we could exercise our tyranny. AKA offered three kinds of high school education: the Kenyan national curriculum, the International Baccalaureate, and the British IGCSE. Students studying the KCSE paid the least in tuition. We were the poor distant relatives. No wonder the institution decided to do away with this option. We were the last class to take sit for national KCSE exams in 2001. and we knew better than to try and intimidate our richer compatriots.

That, however, did not stop us from breaking the rules in other ways. My favorite was making an unsanctioned (by my parents, that is) stop at an Indie movie theater. These venues were the height of ingenuity. Kids love TV. Unfortunately, in my version of suburbia, TVs were a luxury – not so much in terms of buying, but in regards to maintaining it. Sure, you could arm yourself with a cheap Chinese-made home theater – aka a 21″ black and white telly – but that didn’t solve the energy challenge. We were not connected to the national power grid. Up until the 2002 Kibaki administration, connection to power was a political largesse reserved for the well-heeled. You prayed that one of your local councilors or Members of Parliament was in the good graces of the Big Man in State House. If not, languish in darkness! You’d use kerosene lamps for the house, and run the TV using a car battery. Bul Bul was a major enough town center, right on Ngong Road, to warrant connection to the electrical grid. An entrepreneur rented space, placed about 10 wooden benches in there, all facing a 32 inch TV that, for security purposes, was always locked in a metal cage. Even when you paid the KSHS 10 admission fee to go watch a movie. This was such a rare treat, the proprietor must have been anxious someone would walk out with the electronic equipment just as the main actor was about to kick ass.

You could watch all kinds of things here. Saturday and Sunday afternoons offered English and Spanish soccer matches. You may have been born in Kangawa, had no idea where the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport was, but you lived, breathed, and bled Manchester United. Or Barcelona. Or Deportivo La Corona, Chelsea, Arsenal, and many more. But these team afiliations were also about glory. I’m yet to find someone who roots for Newcastle Upon Tyne. No space for losers here.

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Saturday and Sunday afternoons offered English and Spanish soccer matches.

Weekday evenings, from about 5pm, featured action flicks. Think of the big global brands in action films: Rambo, Terminator, Bond, Jean Calude Van Damme, The Rock, Bruce Lee, Steven Seagal and Jackie Chan. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson appeared on the screens multiple times during the week. The movie operator decided to start showing World Wrestling Federation matches on Wednesday nights. These were apparently as big a hit with grown men as they were with school boys. In primary schools, we adopted WWF monikers: The Undertaker, Hulk Hogan, Papa Shango, Coco-T. if boys wanted to tease you, they snickered Yokozuna each time you walked by. If you’ve ever seen the 400 pound Japanese Sumo wrestler, styling a thong, you’d clearly see why this was not a complement.

I went in mostly for the action. Martial arts, close-quarter hand combat, crime thrillers with epic car chases, those were my staple. I craved the adrenaline. Loved the sweaty smell as strangers squeezed onto an uncomfortable wooden bench, craning their neck each time a new patron walked down the aisles. Since the cinema needed zero light penetration to ensure the best movie experience for its customers, this meant the theater was a claustrophobia-inducing cube. No light in or out. And no air, in or out. It was stuffy as hell. And by the time you exited, as the credits rolled on, you’d re-emerge almost as though from a cave. Blind as a bat.

And then there was the commentary. This is a unique phenomenon I’ve not seen replicated anywhere else. It’s kinda like having subtitles on your movie, except that they’re provided as live commentary. The same kind of commenting that accompanies sports events, soccer, baseball, football, or basketball. It’s often in Sheng or Gikuyu, and it’s amazingly hilarious to listen to. Since we were mostly watching Hollywood hits, American English was the default language. Which is fine until you’re faced with an audience that has not graduated high school, and whose comfort with accents is minimal. But why should that stop anyone from enjoying a movie. The solution Nairobi designed was to have commentator who, even though his level of English may not be much better, had pre-viewed the movie, and could walk the audience through the plot line. Hollywood action flicks have a fairly copy-paste plot line: good guy enjoying life; bad guy messes up good guy’s life; good guy has to kick some ass; bad guy is taken care of; good guy gets the girl and drives off into the sunset. The End. Commentators helped the audience figure out Good guy and Bad guy. And then they began to add their own sound effects. And, since they provided commentary in local dialects, their storytelling was inevitably colored by local colloquialisms.

“Basiiiii, wapenziiii, watazamaji!” “So noooow, dear audience!” You inevitably smiled when you heard the DJ begin his film commentary. These folks actually have a lot of fun at work. If you get the movie’s dialogue, it’s annoying as hell to have to listen to their often inaccurate voice-overs. But once you give yourself into the experience, it’s actually super funny. The descriptions of the villain and the hero are laced with innuendo, and whatever insults are currently hot on the street. In case you’ve missed the “Word of the Day” during your matatu commute, the DJ makes sure you’re all caught up.

There was more than language to be appreciated from these spaces. Did I mention that the space had an air of debauchery? I’m pretty certain they’d air blue movies after a certain hour. Movies Za-Kaende, as they’re known in Sheng, needed a 21+ rating. No Kids allowed. I couldn’t stay out past 9pm on a school night, so I never had the pleasure. I did indulge, however, in flirting with a regular. I never quite figured out why she was often in the audience. She could either have been the proprietor’s daughter, or the DJ’s girlfriend.

But she was more comfortable in this macho theater than I was. And that was sexy to watch. One time I was lucky, her usual spot next to the DJ was occupied. Her only other option: the empty bench beside me. I scooted over in a welcoming gesture. I didn’t dare hope that she’d take me up on my offer. I struggled to hide my excitement when she did! We whispered hello to each other. The best thing about chatting up a gorgeous woman in a movie theater is that you have to get real close. The sound track is booming, and other patrons don’t appreciate being interrupted. No choice but to get inside each other’s personal bubble. Her shoulder brushed up against mine, our fingers were soon dancing, seemingly on their own. They yawned for each other, before filling up with the other’s palm and warmth. Our only acknowledgement for this pleasure: an occasional  smile, barely visible from the light bouncing on our faces from the TV screen upfront. That is one film I’d replay ad infinitum.

 

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.

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.
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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?

Aga Khan Academy – Prison Break

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vertigo & Yellow, Sticky Juice

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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.

A Deep Quest for the Next Bend on the Road

Ng’ang’a. I’m named after my paternal grandfather, Amos Ng’ang’a. I’m also named after my mom’s eldest brother, Peter Ng’ang’a. Both parties are now dead, gone to the great beyond. This form of Gikũyũ indigenous reincarnation is at play any time I visit my aunt. Having been named after her husband, I’m both a living manifestation and invocation of his continued existence. I am my late uncle’s widow’s replacement-husband. One of my chief occupations whenever I’m home is to visit as many relatives as I can squeeze into my schedule. This kind of networking, it turns out, was a forte of my maternal namesake. He too loved people, I am told. Uncle Ng’ang’a was also very much about keeping family close. To an extent.

My grandma complained that he rarely made time to visit her. Once she moved to her small ranch in Juja, I doubt he ever visited more than twice in a period spanning almost 8 years. In comparison, my family visited grandma almost every school holidays, so probably about twice a year. Uncle Ng’ang’a wasn’t terribly lucky in love, either. His first marriage did not work out. And despite how much my grandma defended him, and equally vilified his ex-wife, I suppose that as all relationships go, he too had a hand in what transpired. The beautiful remnant of their marriage was Cousin Shiro, named after his mother, my maternal grandma.

Shiro and I were close. Just as my mother and her dad maintained deep  sibling love, we channeled that example in our expressions of toddler emotion. These feelings of mutual admiration are captured in a December 1987 photograph taken as her and I sat on the hood of my Uncle’s red saloon car. Those warm fuzzy feelings, in my adulthood, have transformed into a deep quest for the next bend on the road, the yet unexplored mile on a journey with no eventual destination. The unfailing hope that my upcoming voyage will reconnect me with a cousin I have not seen for almost an entire generation. Who knows what will be triggered in that first moment of recognition.

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Very much unlike my usual self, I must have slept most of the way to Nakuru — I only recall the crowded mini-bus that we boarded for Elburgon. Having departed in the late afternoon, it was almost dusk by the time we rolled into town. This was 1995 and my family was road tripping like we were the -ish.

After alighting from the matatu, and shaking our limbs back from numbness, the first order of business was to unpack our luggage. That first night we visit with Mama Shiro. Not Cousin Shiro, the one I haven’t seen since the late 80s, or the other one I tried to make out with; it’s not even Shiro Sheila, the cute teenager I bought fruit from on my way home from high school. At this point Shiro Sheila hadn’t even come into my life yet. There’ll be lots of people named Shiro in this story, so pay attention. That first sleep over was at the Shiro who had a child rhyme that went something like “biki baka manyoya.” It’s a nonsensical phrase, as far as I know, that has an amazing capacity to withstand both the ravages of time and the radioactive half-life of memory.

There house was in Elburgon town, a timber milling center. Situated next to Mau Forest, residents take advantage of the great big trees satiated by the Mau watershed area. These grow into huge wide logs that, properly milled, have satisfied Kenya’s timber demand for more than 50 years. Continued deforestation, however, is catching up. Tree planting efforts have been sporadic at best, and human encroachment has pushed out wildlife while jeopardizing the water catchment area. This is an environmental disaster in the making. Even back then, in town, one came across numerous growling tractors, their exhausts belching thick dark diesel smoke, as they struggled to ferry piles of freshly cut pine and cypress logs hitched to the back.

That night’s meal was a mini get-together. Baba Shiro’s brother, Kabaiko, ran the mini-bus we’d arrived in. He joined us for dinner together with several other guys from his matatu crew. Our fingers danced around the hot mounds of Ugali, its steam mingling with spices from  the beef and sukuma wiki stew that we dipped it into before placing it in our mouths. The rental house was not hooked to the power grid, and the kerosene lanterns in the family room barely threw off enough light to chase the shadows our hunched upper bodies made as we ravenously stuffed our faces. Crucial recovery work this. The kids, as often happens, were sitting together, legs dangling from the high sofas covered in hand-crocheted cloth. The room went silent for about 20 minutes and it was not until dirty plates and bowls began to pile up in front of well-satisfied stomachs that the noise level began creeping back up. Pieces of soggy Ugali and run-away beef were hand picked from the sofa we children had been sitting on. The tables were cleared. What’s the best part about travelling? You didn’t have to shower in the evening and could roll onto whatever sleeping spot you’d been allotted as grimy as you’d been since you left home early that morning. Bliss. The crowd said its good night and were off. Mom, as always, insisted on a hot shower before going to bed. I stretched out on the couch-turned-into-bed and walked no more than a few steps into deep slumber and happy dreams.

 

We only stayed in town till the next afternoon. We had, after all, not quite made it to our final destination: the Kabaiko family home, where Shiro’s extended family network of aunts, uncles, and cousins lived with her paternal grandmother. Distance-wise, this was pretty close. But in the rickety matatu we took to the sleepy, rural, one-street town it felt like time traveling to the past.

There was a ghostly tone to the homestead. The entire place had evidently seen better days, and this was clearly the end of a golden era. In the middle of the yard there was a large rusted hulk of a Massey Ferguson tractor. As boys, we could not have been more pleased than when we were perched on top of it, cranking gears and wrestling with the manual steering. This piece of farm machinery must have been a wreck for at least a decade. The driver’s seat had been reduced to a curved metal sheet, the cushion and spring framework having long disappeared. Although the tires were still on, they had long deflated, subject to the hot and cold temperature fluctuations of two dozen wet and dry seasons. The previously shiny, sturdy vulcanized rubber was now crumbling, completely soft in some spots. The diesel particles that had previously covered the exhausted had mostly washed off in the rain; all the same, you could smell a faint hint of engine oil. Trust a horde of rowdy boys to coax out the last gasp of a ghostly pile of cast iron and stainless steel. We had not been playing on the tractor for more than twenty minutes when the combination of clutch pumping and gear jerking resulted in two seconds of motion. Our parents and guardians, fearful we might succeed in rolling one of those great wheels on a toddler’s limb, or apprehensive that we would inspire the long dead tractor to roll off a gently slope right into the family house directly ahead of it, quickly asked that we leave our various perches on the machine. How disappointing.

The Kabaiko farm was no different. Though evidently quite fertile, perhaps even too fecund, it had terror written all over it. Our visit to the farm was characterized by tall blackjack weeds that generously adorned our clothes with sticky black seeds, hooked onto every surface available: hair, skin, t-shirt, shorts. Micege, as the plant in called in Gikũyũ is a big pain in the neck to extract once it latches on. The overgrown vegetation had formed a bush around two crumbling structures on the land: a well and a grave. The well still had the simple pulley system running across its diameter: a log supported by two Y-shaped posts. The handle was long gone, so too were the rope and bucket that would have been necessary to haul water out. The grave was most sinister. It belonged to the pater familia. He had passed away in the late Seventies and laid to rest in the middle of a maize plantation. His grave was cemented over and rough inscriptions scratched on top to mark his dates of birth and death. The whole scene sent goose bumps up and down my body.

A week later, we were on our way back to Nairobi.

A Family on the Up & Up

We’d finally done it! With the purchase of a vehicle, we’d vaulted right into the heart of the Kenyan bourgeoisie circle. And it felt great. Never mind that the ‘car’ in question was a Nissan Caravan, primarily intended for use in mass transit services. It still represented the kind of mobility that we as a family felt was our birthright. Did my maternal grandma not travel to Israel in the early 60s and drive a Morris Mini? Wasn’t my mother obviously smart, ambitious,  and successful? It was certainly unfortunate that she’d had to quit her job at an insurance parastatal, the Kenya National Assurance. But even then, knowing that there was little she as an individual could have done in the face of rampant government corruption, it was clear she’d played a winning hand. A stooge of then President Daniel Arap Moi had led what had once been a profitable institution into the ground. As someone who’d worked on the company’s books, mom foresaw it’s imminent demise and jumped ship before the whole fiasco came undone.

To her earlier detractors, she could point out that her two daughters attended a top government school, while her eldest boy, me, was enrolled at a well-performing private school. An ‘Academy’ no less. And now here we were. Taking in that new car smell from this our imported second-hand Japanese automobile. The exterior was sleek metallic silver. Intended for Kenyan roads, it was a right-hand drive with a sliding door on the left. Eventually, once the passenger seats had been installed, it would seat 16 people. Plus a conductor crouching and hanging on from the doorway.

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A Nissan matatu ferrying passengers on the Kericho-Narok route.

For now, however, the van was deliciously empty. The open rear held space not only for cushioned matatu seats that would be bolted to the floor, but also for much more expansive dreams about our bright and rising family prospects. We were, evidently, a family on the up and up. This was the mid-90s, and the combined effects of Bretton Woods’ neo-liberalism, as well as Moi’s cleptocracy were squeezing the country really hard. It was infinitely more difficult for middle class families to make ends meet than it had been just a decade ago. Consequently, it became quite fashionable, indeed inevitable, for professionals to relocate with their families all over the world. The United Kingdom was a major destination for practitioners in the healthcare industry. As Kenyans diversified, or perhaps as the UK got fed up with economic migrants from it former East African colony, Australia, the United States, and South Africa all became new attractions for anyone questing for greener pastures. In this regards, a new PSV Nissan was the equivalent of a Green Card, aka Diversity Lottery visa. Financially, in terms of how much money families spent while applying for, and getting processed through, the resident migrant visa, there couldn’t have been much difference.

A homecoming was in order. And we aimed to do in style. My dad still couldn’t drive. This handicap, however, only served to amplify the suddenness and greatness of his feat. Once the vehicle had cleared customs at the Mombasa port terminal, he’d engaged a driver cum mechanic who lived in our area to help transport the vehicle 450 kilometers back to Nairobi. Buro, as the fellow was called, was actually really good with engines and gear boxes. He had a keen eye for knowing exactly which nut or bolt to tinker with in order to give a second lease of life to a derelict shell of a car about to give up the ghost. For now, however, it wasn’t his Lazarus-like miracle working skills that we needed. All he had to do was calmly steer this ship from our home to Gĩkambura, where my dad’s side of the family lived. It was time to demonstrate just how far we’d come!

It mattered little that we didn’t have an accessible driveway at home, nor that our home had exactly zero secure parking spaces. Minor problems these. After all, was it not precisely for such occasions that African hospitality was designed? Mama Mungai, whose family had an expansive stone bungalow, and a little pick-up truck to boot, offered to let us park in one of her two parking spots. Forward thinking as ever, back in the early 80s when she and her husband had designed and built their family home, it had come complete with a two-car garage. This at a time when each rainy season the main access road transformed into a quagmire of sticky clay and open drains was beyond visionary. It was simply epic. Letting myself get carried along with the self-celebratory mood, I even had the presence of mind to joke about how my dad’s drinking would very soon, surely, render him incapable of driving. As I shared this with my mother, I could already envision myself taking over driving duties anytime the excesses of a family weekend outing knocked my dad out into a drunken paradise. No bitterness was included in this quip; it was a simple acceptance that “dad will be dad,” and as long as he kept the family marching along this trajectory of progress, mom and I would gladly overlook his liquid peccadilloes.

This particular Sunday, we walked to Mama Mungai’s and met Buro outside her gate. The driver, mom and dad sat at the front, while my sisters and I were happily relegated to the back. The seats were still missing, so we sat on cardboard boxes. Buro backed out of the garage and out the main gate. One of the family farm hands shut the big black entrance as Buro shifted into gear two over the unpaved Kangawa Road. It was a slow ride to the tarmack Road. But this was one trip we could enjoy unrushed. Unlike other moments when we had travelled as a family, we didn’t have to wait for any benevolent relative to give us a ride. On at least one occasion, what was supposed to be a lift had descended into an embarrassing moment of watching an uncle nonchalantly zoom past us at the designated waiting spot. This time round, WE were in control. My parents could determine what time we left the house, and what time we’d head back. This experience was more than freedom; it was the culmination of a coming into our own, as a family, that had been repeatedly sabotaged before. The accompanying flexing of dreams had as much to do with the profitability of this embryonic shared taxi business as it did with the belief, amongst ourselves, that the prosperity gospel had finally descended in our midst. We had every reason to trust that this four-wheeled vehicular messiah would deliver us safely across the Red Sea of once-a-week meat menus, frequently tardy payment of school tuition, and troublingly long lines of credit at the shopkeeper’s.

Branching right on to Ngong Road, we drove past Karen shopping center, Dagoretti, and Thogoto, arriving at our grandparent’s house in less than 30 minutes. Not more than an hour may have passed between departure and arrival, but comparing the economic outlook of both spaces, this journey had hurtled us back at least 10 years. The Gĩkambura rural economy fares no better than the heavily potholed main road on which it lies and which we had to navigate on our trip. Many of my cousins and their peers terminated their education with an eighth grade school certificate. Poor preparation from the area’s public schools, lack of role models to inspire and guide them though the travails of Higher Ed, and scarce financial resources meant that perhaps less than 2 in 10 students made it to the end of high school. Moreover, there was an overarching culture that didn’t lend itself to exemplary educational feats.

Gĩkambura is barely 20 miles from Nairobi’s CBD. Hence, there has always been a steady demand for unskilled and low-skilled labor from the metropolis which Gĩkambura’s residents have happily fulfilled. In the 70s through the early 90s, painters, carpenters and other handyman professionals could count on finding a job at many of the Asian-owned hardware and construction companies. The biggest employer in town, however, was the abattoir and meat processing industries at Dagoretti Market. Young men who’d come of age would walk or cycle down to Gĩthĩnjĩrũ six days a week. Each Saturday they’d receive a hefty paycheck, part of which made it home to their mothers, wives, and girlfriends, while the rest was liberally shared with kept women, and drinking buddies on their way home. The slaughterhouses called for all manner of skills to staff the 24/7 meat processing and supply that catered to Nairobi’s insatiable appetite for nyama choma – either goat or beef. A group of men would coral cattle into the abattoir. Dangerous work this: thick batons, plus a lot of tail-twisting, were necessary to convince thickset, long-horned bulls to walk into a structure that reeked of blood and death. The bulls were shot in the forehead by another set of professionals, before beheading, skinning, disemboweling, and getting chopped into a variety of meat qualities. From the moment one cow arrived at Dagoretti, it would have been worked on by almost 15 men, each of whom would draw a weekly salary for their special skillset. Women, on the other hand, were spoilt for choice as traders of all kinds of goods at the retail market that buttressed the Dagoretti economy. Fresh veggies, dry cereals, second hand clothing, and imported Chinese and Indian-made plastic household items were all tradeable products at the open air commerce center.

There must have been a horde of village kids who came to admire the vehicle. I, on the other hand, was too busy being the rich kid from a family that owns a car to notice them. My dad’s name, Uncle Muchiri or Baba Muchiri, depending on whether the kids were related to his sisters or his brothers, would have been said with a certain awe. We were served lunch, after which my sisters and I spent the rest of the afternoon trooping in and out of the many homesteads where we had cousins. Baba Mwathi had a mud-walled 2-roomed cottage. A little dark on the inside, it was tastefully decorated with framed photos, and newsprint wallpaper. This was done by pasting old newspapers to the walls using a gluey, sticky mixture of cold water and wheat flour. Uncle Maina’s bachelor pad, a 3-roomed tin-roofed place was certainly the highlight of the trip. In there, as the most favorite grandkids, obviously, my sisters and I would take our shoes off and    watch endless DVDs with Gikuyu gospel songs. Maina, who’d been working at the Dagoretti abattoir since he dropped out of high school, was clearly doing well for himself, hence the new house, a TV set, a fancy sports bike, and the latest imitation designer ware in his wardrobe.

There’s an established order when we visit my paternal grandparents. We first go straight to my grandpa’s house and sit for the usual greetings, tea, lunch, hospitality combo. About a half hour before we’re ready to leave, we’ll walk downhill to where 2 of my dad’s brothers have built their homes. There would then ensue a mini-version of what we’d done at my grandpa’s: greetings, tea/fruit juice, and politely-worded refusals to their invites for a second lunch.

A little while later, one of my cousins would travel to Mombasa  and join my dad in running the matatu. It was he who would eventually baptize the vehicle ‘Mysterious Cat.’ They’d ply the Likoni Ferry-Lunga Lunga route, serving Mtwapa, Kwale, and the Shimba Hills areas. This road forms the last miles as you approach the Kenya-Tanzania border. Crossing over from Mombasa island on a diesel ferry, you land at Likoni, ejected alongside a great mass of daily commuters. Tourist vans with sun roofs popped to ensure maximum safari-ness go first; then come private and commercial vehicles. All vehicles pay a nominal fee to use the ferry. Pedestrians, however, do not; they also disembark last. A good proportion of them proceed into the Likoni outdoor market. The rest either walk home, or board a shared taxi at the bus terminal for the final leg of their journey.

More than a decade later, when visiting grandpa, he’d tell me about seeing us drive in with the Nissan. By then, the family’s nascent dreams of establishing a business empire centered around transportation had all but vanished. The bitter ash of a once-blazing flame now doomed into dying embers. It hadn’t always been so. Purchasing the vehicle had involved a few financial gymnastics. Essentially, my parents had sold the family home to a relative who’d then mortgaged it to Kenya Commercial Bank, where he was an employee. The cash my dad’s cousin received helped purchase the Nissan, with the expectation that the taxi would do well enough to service the loan. For the first year, the new business did very well. The daily cash flow enabled my father to service the attached debt, keep the vehicle well maintained, and support the family. He’d moved semi-permanently to Likoni. Whenever he visited home, every three or four weeks, large, yellow Mombasa mangoes would be plentiful at home. And these were not the overpriced merchandise found in upcountry markets. His mangoes came complete with a basket made from raffia, and several coconuts thrown in. These parcels held the very essence of exoticness. As the Good Book says, we were of Ngong, yet not of Ngong. This was a major upgrade to our social standing and we reveled in it.

Things began going south in the run-up to the 1997 Kenyan general elections. Likoni police station was torched in an attack that came to represent the acrimony felt by coastal indigenes against watu wa bara, folks who’d moved to Mombasa from upcountry. Questions about belonging, identity, and ultimately land rights came to fore in this political dystopia. Essentially, if non-Mombasa residents didn’t belong, they could neither vote nor own land. Any businesses they owned could also be repossessed and taken over. In some ways, it was a little bit like Idi Amin’s Ugandan fiasco which oversaw the ejection of Indians, foreign-born or otherwise, out of the country and their wealth forcefully confiscated with no compensation. The Likoni incident spooked businesspeople such as my dad and his colleagues. Rather than risk their lives and property, they elected to withdraw from the region entirely, at least until the end of election season. The 1997 presidential race was hotly contested. Incumbent Daniel Arap Moi was feeling the pressure as opposition candidates Raila Odinga, Mwai Kibaki, Kijana Wamalwa, Charity Ngilu, Martin Shikuku and almost nine other aspirants ate away at his previously secure one-party majority. State-sanctioned violence became a key stratagem for either intimidating voters or disrupting free and fair elections. It worked. Aside from Likoni, other areas that were engulfed in conflict included Narok, Nakuru, Molo, and Elburgon. These were all regions with sizeable Gikuyu populations in the midst of Maasai or Kalenjin communities. The political narrative that emerged was that thieving Gikuyus were encroaching into areas where they did not belong, buying land at very low prices and taking over the political destinies of such locations. Gikuyu farmers, traders, or professionals who worked outside Kenya’s Central province were caricatured settlers. In a country which had unyoked itself from British colonialism less than four decades earlier, such a story was quite salient. Like other internally displaced persons, my dad formed part of a matatu convoy that trekked from Mombasa back to Nairobi. News organizations were contacted, but in a country where violence and displacement was now a common phenomenon, their sad fate did not warrant much attention.

Once back in Nairobi, Mysterious Cat was put to work on the Ngong-Nairobi 111 route. This was a whole different ball game. The clientele was more urbane and less accommodating than the polite Swahili speakers who travelled from Likoni to Lunga Lunga. Moreover, there were traffic cops to interact with and, hopefully, evade. These novel dynamics changed the profitability of the business. Unlike in the past, the taxi’s proceeds could barely keep up with routine costs associated with vehicle repair and maintenance. And while the business managed to pay the driver and his one-man conductor crew, it could not provide for our family upkeep. With its prospects dwindling, the Nissan matatu was handed over to my uncle, with the unspoken agreement that he’d take the proceeds and use them to service the original loan. My dad went on to do other things, including running a stone quarry, and teaching for a number of private schools. Although he never shared them out loud, his frustrations from the demise of his transport business would sometimes emerge when he had sufficiently imbibed so that he was slightly more than tipsy. The full financial repercussions of this lost business would not manifest until almost 2 decades later, when the bang of an auctioneer’s gavel threatened to render us homeless.

Song & Dance

ndege wathie ũtũme marũa,

wĩre baba ũke naihenya,

unibomu yakwa nĩ  thiru,

ĩthireire haha mũkũnyũ,

kamũcũrũge! Kanyita ngũkũ! gaikia mũkũnyũ! ĩtikaganu!

Gĩkũyũ Children’s Play Song

Thinking back, I ingested a peculiarly diverse range of cultural artifacts during my childhood. The play songs, rhyming teases, songs on radio, TV series, and movies that I consumed as a kid originated from all over the cultural map. There were Gĩkũyũ couplets that are probably older than my grandparents. Childhood jibs in Sheng were more recent, perhaps a few decades old. While the Congolese rhumba that dominated Kenyan airwaves was from the 90s, even more recent were TV series from the UK, the United States, and Australia. Some of the items recycled much older narratives. For instance, the movie series Gods Must be Crazy, filmed in southern Africa, retold prejudice against black peoples instituted during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Hanuman, his monkeys, and Sita who showed up on my TV screen on Sunday afternoons were revisions of the ancient Ramayana text.

Gĩkũyũ couplets – from my house to the main road, made of dirt and unpaved, you have two options. One is to weave around quarried lands, up a steep slope of dumped concrete and construction waste, to Barabara ya Najuu: the upper road. The other is to walk downhill, using the now official driveway, previously a stone quarry. Baba Shiro owned the small farm closest to the main road. Between his house and ours, the land had been sold by one of his brothers to a family friend. For almost a decade after we moved from Gĩkambura to Ngong’, this area was uncultivated, and overgrown with bushes. As a result, the half acre plot of land was home to a variety of wild mammals. Squirrels were in the majority, but so too were mongooses. Walking down the path, I’d see a number of bushy tails dash up a tree and then listen in amusement as their owners held a conversation up in the canopies. The mongoose family, however, was not known for speed or beauty. What they lacked in these two criteria they compensated for in cunning and sheer evil. Our mongoose neighbors established their presence by the number of chickens they devoured. Actually, not even devoured, just simply massacred.

Around dusk, or even later in the night, we’d hear our hens complain. Their clacking and crooning would indicate that an intruder had entered their coop. Often, the assailant mongoose would break an egg from one of the hens’ laying nests, and help itself to a meal. The shell and some remnants of the yolk would be visible the next morning. A loud bang on the chicken coop’s tin roofing would send its residents scrambling and the intruder would be forced into a hasty get-away.

More cunningly sometimes, the mongoose would not reveal its presence till the next morning. We’d go into the shed to feed and water the birds only to see a stiff hen on the floor. Closer inspection would reveal that its neck was punctured. This was how the mongoose had attacked it, using an incision wound on its neck to drink up its blood. Much like a vampire. The body would often be cold by the time we discovered it: carrion. At this point there was no choice but to bury the dead hen, or perhaps cut it up and prep it for the family dog. But this was generally discouraged. Feed the pet canine chicken on one too many occasions and the next thing you know, she’ll walk into the coop and grab a meal for herself. After all, why wait until the bloody mongoose had killed it first? Unsurprisingly, the mongoose’s wastefulness – it never feeds on the meat, just the blood – made its way into a children’s rhyme song.

Mr. Airplane please send this letter

Ask my father to return home ASAP

My school uniform is torn

It’s tattered right at the belly button

That mongoose! Stole a chicken! Stuffed it in it’s mouth! How very naughty!

We live on the flight path that commercial planes take on their approach to Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta and Wilson airports. The hum of an airplane engine, fifteen thousand feet above us, would send kids running and shouting. They’d send their voices high up, shouting messages to be communicated to their fathers who were far away, physically or emotionally.

There’s precedence here. A well-known folk tale from Central Kenya narrates the use of a dove to send a message from a wife to her husband. The man, so the story goes, had left behind an expectant wife and travelled far away to practice his trade as a blacksmith. In his absence, an ogre moved in and usurped authority it kept the pregnant woman well-fed so her and her unborn child would grow fat, and make for a sumptuous meal. To avert this disaster, the comely wife befriended a dove and trained it to send a message to her husband. This was a win-win deal. The dove got some of those delicious castor oil seeds; and the wife was saved when her man returned home and slaughtered the cannibal ogre.

east-africa-087

Mr. Airplane, please send this letter.

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Mbili fanana/ moja inanuka/ mavi ya kuku!

Two look-alikes/ one’s smelly-smelly/ chicken shit!

Childhood teasing – we’re 3 siblings in my family. Aside from the other illegitimate children my dad has never disclosed to us. Just kidding! I have two younger sisters, twins. Despite all evidence to the contrary, most people who meet them are convinced the two of them are identical. Actually, they’re just fraternal twins. When they were younger, and my mom invested in the habit of dressing them alike, they DID seem identical. As they’ve grown older however, their personalities have fleshed out in unique ways. They’re two different people.

We’d be walking across the village, the two of them dressed in similar costumes, and out of nowhere you’d hear kids shouting “mbili fanana!” The tune would conclude by suggesting that one of the two look-alikes smells of chicken poop. I never inquired from my sisters what they made of these taunts. In many ways, they weren’t malicious. But in their position, I’d have been horrified of all the additional attention.

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tangu lini doggy kava longi, na under?

When did dogs start wearing trousers and under pants?

Rhumba – sexy, jazzy sounds from the Democratic Republic of Congo, previously Zaire, have received ample play time on Kenyan radio since the late Fifties. Joseph Kabasellah’s “Independence Cha Cha” was as much a hit in Kinshasa as in Nairobi. Stars such as Mbilia Bel, Papa Wemba, Franco, Koffi Olomide, and many others have huge fan clubs across Kenya. In the 1990’s, Congolese “Ndombolo” took over the Kenyan entertainment scene like wild fire. The dance moves were borderline explicit, more often crossing into mature adult content. We loved it! Kanda Bongoman was not just a big time DRC musician with fanatic crowds in Brussels, Nairobi, and Paris, but also the self-given moniker by one of the milk hands in my neighborhood. This guy was as skilled in belting out Bongoman songs as he was in hand milking 7 heads of dairy cattle.

It goes without saying that as kids we did our best to karaoke Ndombolo lyrics. That we could neither speak, nor hear Lingala – the language in which most DRC music is composed – did not stop us. If we couldn’t get the lyrics right, we could at least create a re-mix. We made them up in our own way. The end result may not have stayed faithful to the original meanings, and I’m afraid we may have exercised that whole poetic license just a bit too much. There’s one particular remix that I especially associate with my time at Ngong Hills Academy. The licentious lyrics evoke memories of the terrible latrines we frequented as school boys. Those pits of disease were NEVER kept clean. Part of that certainly had to do with the fact that among a horde of 4 to 14 year olds there will be several who do not aim quite right when making a deposit. They’d then leave a nasty package on the latrine floor. The remnants looked like modern art exhibitions or the final products of a culinary experience involving omelets. Either way, these piles of shit were nothing pleasant to look at. And they stank to high heaven. Such incidents aside, they do not explain why many of the doors were often broken and in unhinged. Privacy was a rare commodity when you had a number 2 in mind. It is from that background that we began questioning fashion choices in dog world: what heralded the trouser-donning canines. Obviously, and memorably, this was done to the tune of the latest Ndonbolo track.