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.
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.
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.