In the Zone & Loving It!

Over time, I came to accept that I really enjoyed school work. This was a big deal. Acknowledging my own nerdy tendencies happened slowly. I resisted the process every step of the way wishing, instead, that I was more macho. In the first and second grade, thankfully, I had not yet developed such inhibitions.

My Standard 2 class teacher, Miss Grace, groomed me to self-confidence. This was despite my very reserved nature. Her and I came to an understanding where I’d do extra homework and she’d review it next time we met in class. Taking on parts of the syllabus we hadn’t tackled in our lessons,  or completing more than the assigned homework assignments felt great. The more I practiced my math and English skills the better I got, and this increased my sense of accomplishment. I could clearly tell that I was good at school. This compensated for many things. For one, I was pretty mediocre at many of the activities boys my age engaged in. I couldn’t slay birds with a catapult, score goals in soccer, or swim at a pond in our neighborhood river. Although tall, I was still kinda puny, and had no fighter spirit in me. But the hours I spent hurdled over grammar exercises wiped all those inadequacies away.

Being a private school, our curriculum often meandered from the government regulations adhered to by public institutions. Nowhere was this more apparent than in our English classes. We read from, and worked through, overseas grammar textbooks with glossy hard covers. These texts were imported and cost a pretty penny. Consequently, I’d often spend the first half of the school term borrowing my friends’ copy of Better English or looking over their shoulder. My coping mechanism, other than enviously wishing I had access to all the resources my peers did, was to make the most of the few times I could get my hands on a book. More than once I’d stay behind at my desk during Physical Ed, finishing my homework assignments using a classmate’s textbook. This way, I could hand it back to her when she returned after an hour spent running, jumping rope, or playing hide and seek in the school’s outdoor gymnasium: a grassy field. Other times, Tr. Grace would let me take home her Haydn Richards’s Junior English. I have a really fond place in my heart for her and Tr. Ones, my grade 3 class teacher.

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It’s not until many years later, when I was completing my Kenyan Certificate of Secondary Education, as well as the International Baccalaureate, that I knew the luxury of having all my textbooks provided for. In retrospect, this is really how education should happen, but back then it simply seemed magical. Free textbooks? Sign me up! Through college and graduate school, I wouldn’t have been caught dead without my course books. In addition  to signaling me out as an unprepared student, I always felt that sharing texts with my colleagues drew unnecessary attention to my socio-economic background. Now, as I stand in front of, and conduct, my own courses, I cannot fathom student behavior when they appear in class empty-handed. It’s bad enough that they show up in a literature class without the primary resources – kinda like turning up at the lab without your lab coat, long pants, and closed shoes. Yet to make matters worse, my students will simply sit, taking no initiative to get their hands on a copy. As one colleague after another reads a page from the day’s assigned text, the student in question will keep squirming. Finally, when I ask them to read – naturally, I must put them in the spotlight to passive-aggressively point out their showing up in my class unprepared – they’ll murmur something about not having a book with them. Argh! Often, I’ll notice that 1 or 2 students are staring off into space as the rest of us reads and I’ll enquire where their texts are. “I don’t have my book today.” I will inwardly roll my eyes at this juvenile behavior, before asking them to move and share with a peer. Clearly, these kids lack my own prowess at finding resources by hook or by crook. That’s a luxury I cannot identify with.

More than once, after our hot cup of tea around 10am, I’d head back to class to wrap up a few more math or English comprehension passages for Tr. Ones. A few hours later, after the rotation of dishes that made up our lunch menu – ugali and beans, rice and beans, boiled potatoes and cabbage – I’d make my way to the dreaded Ngong Hills Academy lavatory facilities before heading back to class. Mother had brought home a thick, bound writing pad. I carefully split each page into two with a straight line down the middle, and proceeded to cram it with extra grammar activities. Each pupil had 2 exercise books, one for classwork, and another for homework. It made sense for me to have a third that compiled my own solitary attempts through the syllabus. Sometimes there’d be play: a game of cops and robbers. With thumb cocked, and  the two-finger barrel pointed at an adversary, we’d recreate last night’s TV episode of Tausi, Superman, or Renegade. But I was just as likely to be found sitting alone, working through some work of fiction. The NHA school library was actually well-stocked, for its day. It had, unfortunately, more been designed as a lockable room to store valuable resources, than as an open space when students could freely interact with books. One might have needed an ID or a teacher’s permission to walk in, I forget which. A ridiculous regulation from when colonial Kenya policed its subjects’ access to knowledge. There was a long boardroom-style table in the middle, with about 15 to 20 chairs around it. The walls, however, were a sight from heaven. Floor to ceiling shelves filled with books. It smelled like paradise. And not even the devilish librarian, who’d much sooner that we’d not stepped into her domain could ruin the atmosphere. In any case, it was easy to forgive her. She was sharply dressed, in her early twenties, and fascinating to our 10-year-old eyes. One collection in the library held stories from the United States about a young black girl. On the one hand, these were the rather expensive books our greasy hands were only permitted to handle with extreme care. On the other, the texts must have been the first attempts at representing diversity. They were barely captivating, despite their foreign setting, and more often off-putting for their prosaic nature.

Football was a fully-sanctioned playtime activity. Boys would bring home-made balls to school in the morning. The compressed rolls of  plastic bags were wound together so tight, they actually bounced. Depending on the skill of the fellow who made it, the outermost layer would be a web made of red and yellow tough nylon string. These balls were a precious commodity. As replacements to the more expensive inflatable soccer equipment, they helped popularize the sport to kids in all social milieus. Teachers understood this perfectly. Staff on duty would happily confiscate a soccer ball, stashing it in the staff room as punishment for some infraction or other. Any student brave enough to venture into that lair of male and female educators, asking after his prized possession, must have had a death wish. Some kids could pull it off. Most, however, only got their balls back after receiving several strokes of the cane for their trouble. During P.E., we’d be separated by gender. I never saw girls play soccer. Often, we’d start the class with a co-ed circle of game songs. Each student sat on the grass, and 1 randomly selected pupil would walk around on the outside as we all joined her in singing “I sent a letter to my father…” At the end of the song, as the walker chose the individual who’d found the lost letter, we’d all perk up. “It wasn’t you! It wasn’t you! It wasn’t you! But. It. Was. YOU!” The person tagged last, and the tagger, would run in opposite directions. The goal was to return to the empty spot before your opponent, in which case you’d get to sit as they walked around the circle for another round of the game. It helped to tag one of the unfit kids.

Another favorite group activity was “nyama, nyama, nyama.” Everybody stands, one student facing the rest of the group. He chants “Nyama! Nyama! Nyama!” And the group replies, “Nyama!” The soloist will then reel out a list of edible meats. “Ya ng’ombe?” “Nyama!” “Ya kuku?” “Nyama!” “Ya kondoo?” “Nyama!” Expert players would then rush their audiences through a quick succession of edible meats: chicken, mutton, camel, goat, and each time the group as a whole would jump and shout “Nyama!” Yes, indeed, that particular animal is edible. The point of the game was to trick a member of the audience into jumping and affirming edible an animal that was known to be anything but. Having lulled his listeners into a soothing pattern of palatable meats, the leader would throw in “Ya paka?” If you were alert you’d stay standing and shout back “Sio nyama!” If you’d been duped into jumping and shouting that cat meat is eatable, you’d get laughed at, and have to swop positions with the chanter. You were it. Not until later did we appreciate the fact that cat, dog, donkey, zebra, and many more besides, are all delicacies in spaces outside our Ngong Hills experience.

Following this, the girls would go off on one side to play Kati, while the boys would walk towards the goal posts for a match. Renowned players always got to be captains. Let’s just say I was never captain. These two would then get to pick their team, strategically trying to get the best men on their side before the other side did. There was never much hurry to pick me. If given a choice I’d more happily have walked off the pitch. Under a teacher’s duress, however, I was content to play defense. I accepted my handicap as a forward striker, and would rarely attempt anything so skillful. But I was a dogged defender, left or right, but more often right. I could mark my man, and really throw myself into the scuffle until my opponent either lost or passed the ball. There was a stubbornness associated with defense work that I truly enjoyed. A certain risk-taking did not hurt either. It was not uncommon to collide with your opponent’s shin, boot, or knee. Often we played barefoot. Cleats and shin guards were completely unheard of. Meanwhile, the girls would be playing 1 or 2 simultaneous games of dodgeball. Two girls would stand in a line, and everyone else would stand in the middle. The girls at the end would throw a small fist-sized ball between them. Their objective was to hit one of the girls in the middle. Those in the middle strove to either dodge or catch the ball without dropping it, before sending it back to a thrower at either end. It made sense to pick the low-lying fruit first. Any girls who were even slightly overweight and challenged in the fitness department were eliminated first. Expert players could crouch, jump, and swerve in acrobatic moves that defied the throwing capacities of the strikers at each end. These would be declared the winners.

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On the First Day…

We’d just moved house in June 1990. We were now living about 4km from Ngong town and it was time for me enroll back in school. The 2nd academic term runs from early May through end of July; after catching up, I’d have almost 6 weeks before the end-of-term assessments. That first week, I was accompanied by my mother who helped me figure out the bus route. We boarded a 111 matatu at Bulbul Market on its way from Nairobi. During peak hours, passenger vehicles heading to Nairobi would be crowded with private employees and civil servants on their way to offices in the CBD. Squashed next to each other, passengers suffered the indignity of smelling unwashed armpits, stale breath, and rancid week-old socks. Given than we were heading in the opposite direction, it was easy to get a seat. As soon as we boarded, the van drove downhill past a former meat processing plant. At Vet, a bus stop named after the agricultural and veterinary extension farm that ran beside the road, a few older women got in and sat  in front of us. Given their baskets made of recycled nylon sacks, they were headed to the Ngong Market. Just past the PCEA Enchoro-Muny church, and before the matatu got to its last stop, my mom and I alighted.

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Right to left, Joram N. and I. Circa 2008. This kid was legendary! A goof who was ever willing to explore the lighter side of life.

We’d walk the rest of the way to school; 5 minutes later, she pointed out where one of her uncles lived. With time, this would be my favorite alternative after-school destination. But for now, I focused my energy on getting the hang of this new community: Ngong Hills Academy. A place I’d eventually call home for the next 8 years. Mr. and Mrs. Mureithi, the proprietors of the school, had turned the institution into a brand name associated with academic excellence. The private school education did not come cheap. But both parents and faculty understood that the hefty investment in a child’s future would certainly pay off.

That first day, we walked into the receptionist’s office. Mom and I met Mrs. Mureithi, the headmistress, and I was led to my class by a staff member. I was enrolled in Standard One with Teacher Christine. The thing about Tr. Christine is that she was cute, in that attractive aunty kind of way. She presided over her quota of 6 and 7-year-olds with magnanimity. I was assigned to a large table where I sat on a wooden chair and avoided eye contact with the other 3 kids who, already seated, preferred to stare instead of crayoning within the line. Like mine, their chairs were painted in the primary hues of the color wheel: red, blue, yellow. This vibrant background helped highlight our school uniforms.

Being a proper academy, Mrs. Mureithi’s institution set itself apart in many ways. Not for her pupils the earthy brown, dark green, and slimy pink that public schools in the region mandated as school uniform. Instead, she chose a blue sweater, red and white checked shirt and grey shorts for boys, or red and white plaid dresses for girls. These were crowned using grey socks with blue, white, and yellow stripes at the top. Footwear was standard issue, black or brown. In the right conditions, this combo reeked of middle-class dreams and anxieties about one-upping your neighbors. It was the perfect advertising strategy.

I began my Ngong Hills education with a bang and I blame it all on Wakori. It’s a pretty run-of-the-mill story. Classroom bully always seeking attention. Spies fresh prey on whom to exercise his power games. Pounces. The victim strikes back, viciously. Bully, totally stunned, sees his young life flash before him, and vows to reform his ways. Everyone lives happily ever after. And that’s the way it went down between Wakori and I. Almost. Except for the part about me standing up to my tormentor.

This is how it really went down. It was right after lunch, a bowl of boiled rice and bean stew. As usual, Tr. Christine  prepped her class for the daily arithmetic exercises.  I was nervous, and really wanted my penmanship to be perfect. This was a new school after all, and first impressions count. I pressed the pencil too hard into the square-lined exercise book and it buckled under pressure. A few seconds later, the lead point on my HB no. 2 flew half way across the table. I stood up to bend forward and stretch my short arms towards a pack of freshly sharpened pencils in the middle. Wakori saw this, smiled smugly, and went into action! I sat back down, expecting my chair to be exactly where my bum had left it a few moments before, Instead, I met nothing but a void. As I lost my balance and scrambled on the table’s edge to regain composure, I had that sinking feeling that accompanies public humiliation. A few sniggles later, with more wounded pride than broken bone, I pulled my chair back into place and concentrated on the task at hand. Tr. Christine was aghast. Wakori had been caught picking on the new kid! She not only gave him a good talking to, but may also have spanked him. At least I like to think she did. In my 7-yearr old imagination, Tr. Christine immediately transformed into a saving angel. And did I mention that she was cute, in that attractive-aunty kind of way?

What Eye Saw – III

The kisses. Many and often. Passionate, in a plastic kind of way. Self-conscious smooches that ride on the back of the Queen’s English to spread a Latter Day Pax Britannica. Frail, in the end; yet effective. These scrounged lips and bared teeth mole their way into teenage minds in Nairobi. They are suave and chic, and in the peri-urban Ngong area, as provincially anxious as we were of our small town roots, we lapped these up. It helped, too, that the token black girl was cute. Long flowing hair, heat treated to decorum. An upper middle-class sheen dominates the arrangement of hair ties and pins. The front bob is uppity personified. We eat it all up.

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Not just the possibility, but the actuality of being anyone, anywhere. On the back of his white, middle class ancestry, he rode on to be a pilot, a surgeon, a fireman, an engineer, a college professor, sometimes even an actor. This genius, was, as I’d later come to appreciate, an apt manifestation of privilege, and the mobility that accompanies it.

Hence, given the politics, this was a vision of life that was wholly seductive. And also adaptive. We marveled, in our school boy yarns, at his use of mobile phones. Plus, at a deeper level, a more guttural, instinctual, eat-meat-raw-and-bloody moment, we understood him as men. His pursuer was a Jezebel –  a wickedly beautiful tormentor none of us could resist, even if we’d tried. And yet he attempted, always no more than a step ahead of her long grasping nails. Barely out of reach. And yet, getting captured by this modern day Delilah, would it really have been such an awful thing? That was how blinding her sex appeal.

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Majestic twin peaks in Arches National Park

I think it was mostly the flowing hair, perfectly fanned and billowed into a cinematographic sculpture. There was, too, the dark green truck. I don’t know why green, when my TV set was black and white. But dark leafy hues best suggest the wild and untamed look he projected, assisted by a faithful companion. These were two men bonded in nature and violence, and not broken by any mountains. The poise between expansive outdoors and close-quarter combat.

Modern day cowboys. American Indians who seemingly preferred to not stay dead. Bobby-Six-Killer never sounded more poetic. A private eye duo that cleansed crime from a land wholly condemned of the original sin. The settlers on the land quipped, ” we shall miscege-Nation our way to Americanness;” successfully burrowing into claims of autochthony that 30, 000 years of settlement decried. But who’s counting?

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It was a millisecond moment that promised a whole life of adventure. Just that exact moment as the soundtrack began, and the TV series title appeared. Before, as it were, the blonde, bronzed limbs of Brooks Shields and her uber-suburban community unfolded. Way in advance of, it turns out, the bedroom misdemeanors that had had the program relegated to 2130 hours: post-national news hour, when adult supervision could be counted on. And if absent, not Kenya Broadcasting Corporation’s care.

The click from the shutter, opening, not closing, uncountable doors in the visual world. I birthed by dreams of dying a photographer midwifed by a Hollywood lens that peddled American sex, drugs, and violence. Could that I had belonged, even as an afterthought, in this pristinely white movie set. Scrubbed entirely of, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights. This was the Nineties, after all, and heaven forbid that the bitter aftertaste of history trouble our determined march towards the future of a new millennium. This is how it was, to be Bold & Beautiful.

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This is the monk who became a daddy. And the son flails in tight upper cuts and round houses, achieving a sense of release unrecoverable since that moment of birth. What weighs this family down, and together, is the impossible search for mother. Mother earth, and Wife earth, absent. This unholy crime-busting trinity is incomplete. The quest is incarnate, as spirit. And so we have before us, ladies and gentlemen, the father, the son, and the searching spirit. There may, too, have been whiffs of whiskey in that deep-pocketed shoulder bag slang on top of a trench coat above the old man’s shoulders. A rebellious spirit this. A spirit of color. A spirit with color.

What Eye Saw – II

Part of my religious education since elementary school has always revolved around Hinduism. Sita and Krishna were not merely names on temple sites in Nairobi, but also deities I read about.   But what really brought this education alive for me was watching the Ramayana epic on TV. Back in the day when Kenya Broadcasting Corporation was the only TV station available, they aired Hindi movies every Sunday afternoon. Most of these were Bollywood hits, complete with subtitles and the musicals. We never watched these films for the acting; it was subpar, and yet there was an allure to viewing a small sliver of a continent we knew little about. Unlike the West, India did not bombard East Africa with enormous amounts of cultural artifacts. Instead, over several centuries, India had shared with us her traders, her laborers, her sailors, her cuisine, her spices, and eventually her rail building expertise.

Ramayana, hence, was both exotic and familiar. Kenyan folk lore was populated with animals who spoke, fought, and interacted with humans. Seeing Hanuman and his monkeys was merely an extension of the hare, leopard, and lion who connived with humans in Gikuyu oral literature.

Sita. Beautiful Sita. 8-armed Elephant God. Multiply armed mihiananu. Idols populate a Hindu mythology book. “That is worship of false gods,” quips my nanny. And yet. And yet, these manifestations of godliness fascinate. Even the winged horse beckons to me, offering insight on the nature of divine power. I know not to how explain these allure, much less to others than to myself. I let go, and dive deep.

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Hindu temple, Mombasa

My canoe. This weekly escapade from an island, waters shimmering silver off the screen. The moon glowing blue as I tune the VHF. I voyage forth into the unknown. My will unfolds ahead of me into adventure. The unknown seduces me into forsaking home. Forsaking chores as I while away in my thoughts; indulging my  whimsy and mind mapping exotic destinations I am yet to call home. Coconuts and palm trees occupy the thin space between dreaming and waking. Sand filters down into my bed sheets, and my piss laps back and forth on the mattress, softly like the sea-green waters. The dimly lit room smells of a beach at dusk, and I peer my eyes into the horizon, confirming that I’ve indeed left all else behind. The firewood kitchen next door wafts into my nose, and I flutter my eyes. At once catching, making, and digging into my piscine meal. I am my own Man Friday.

Because soon, I shall be Home & Away. Not even the thick Aussie accent keeps me at bay. I wander, in and out of these middle-class lives, intent on small town living. The restaurant. The beach. Each spot echoes back to me, frustratingly, mirroring my own inactivity. The girl. There’s always one. This time she has long flowing hair, brunette. And dimples that wink each time she yells at an older, ruder brother. Teenage pregnancy. I plug in and out of the thickening plot. The predictability of the narrative is a large part of its success. This could be me. Could be us. If you ignore the trappings of the first world. Later on, when I finally visit the Opera House, I shall wonder at the writing off of darker hued peoples from this landscape. The result of anxious settlers eager to assuage their own culpability.

On Reading … (Part III)

Another publication that suffered from serious malnutrition in representing people of  color was the Tintin collection. Instead, the comic series made up for this dearth via numerous stereotypical depictions of Native Americans and Asians. When Tintin finally chose to include Africans, the caricatures were more than offensive. They were over the top; the author dug deep into Europe’s stock of racist African images and paraded these within the covers. Cannibals wielding a humongous pot seeking to make a meal of Tintin and his pet Snowy? Check. A jungle seething with venomous snakes and vicious wildlife? Check. Naked, bone-clad witch doctors? Check. Tintin Au Congo had all these and more. It’s quite wild when you think about it, really The Congo, after bearing the brunt of Belgium and French colonial occupation, was subsequently subjected to cartoonist Georges Remi’s civilizing pen. Remi, more well-known as Herge’, reverts to 18th century iconography in portraying Africans. Herge’s Congolese characters are, much like Joseph Conrad’s, brutes with vaguely human features.

Working with literature in high school was a joy. I had the privilege of learning under teachers who truly enjoyed language and what it could achieve. Kiswahili literature, Fasihi, was taught to us by Misters Ruo and Sarara. Shamba la Wanyama, a Swahili translation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, was just annoying. The language seemed archaic. There was little about the diction that was creative, flippant, and dynamic, attributes I associated with Kenya’s street and vernacular languages. Rather, Shamba felt heavily weighed down by grammatical structure. The ideas therein made much sense, however. I could wholly identify with the key questions raised about distribution of national resources and the elitism that accompanied political office. Aside from that, the rest was simply too lofty.

Ken Walibora’s Siku Njema was more my thing. The romance novel was, in retrospect, not very politically ambitious. It adopted a neoliberal outlook without much in the way of critical engagement. Characters were poor and impoverished not due to the economic policies instituted at the national level, but because of their own individual circumstances. Nevertheless, the text approached language with a reverence I appreciated. And communities were not merely pawns in an expansive game of chess, but actually individual subjects whose dreams, desires, and fears were worth understanding. The novel might have been utopian, but unlike Orwell’s Shamba La Wanyama, it did not limit human lives to production and labor. Creativity was a vital part of Walibora’s world. The lyricism in his language was refreshing; it paid homage to the great poetic tradition in Kiswahili. More importantly, his word choice enabled him to better tug at our teenage heartstrings. Sometimes the characters underwent extremely sad experiences; for instance, the protagonist was mistreated by his guardian, an aunt who accommodated him after he was orphaned. Other times there was fear, so palpable it vaulted from off the page. Like when the main character runs for his life, pursued by a knife-wielding childhood rival. And, of course, there was love. Lots of love: the innocent kind of love between young friends exploring their new physical awareness; the sellable kind of love that was transacted between characters; and the unrequited love that Walibora’s hero repeatedly got invitations to, each time fleeing in the opposite direction.

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The River & The Source

Leading us in English literary studies was Joshua Musee, a man who has remained my friend to this day.  There was much that we read together, but The Burdens by John Ruganda and Margaret Ogola’s The River and the Source stood out. Musee’s class readings of Ruganda’s play dramatized the work into our classroom space. He basically performed the text with his voice. Ogola’s novel was phenomenal. In the 2 years that I used it for my fourth form national exams, I must have re-read it about 10 times. There were many passages I could recite, especially the refrains that occur in the text and which Ogola composes as a chorus to the larger narrative. Akoko Obanda, the protagonist, came alive to me in the form of my maternal grandmother. Her great granddaughter, Vera, was a role model. I lived, breathed, and identified with these personalities. There was nothing abstract about this fiction. Ogola’s was a true novel. Becky, Vera’s sister, a young woman who vigorously wielded her sexuality, eventually succumbs to AIDS. This hit close to home. My mom’s eldest brother, after whom I’m named, had passed away about 4 years prior, due to complications with HIV/AIDS. These were the early days of the disease, at least in Kenya. A diagnosis, if there ever was one, often came very late, and was publicly understood to be a death sentence. I witnessed family friends, 2 couples in fact, die in the same manner; first the wives, then the husbands. Add to that list one of my dad’s younger sister, Aunty Wanjiku – a really funny, vibrant woman. A literary examination of Ogola’s narrative wasn’t so much a close reading analysis as a reflection on the lives my community and extended family lived.

Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword affected me in ways I had not anticipated. On the one hand there was a great sense of adventure, as a group of children travelled across the Bavarian countryside fleeing from Nazi Germany. In this way, The Silver Sword sowed an interest in understanding World War II that has endured since then. And yet, there was horror. Lots of it. Though certainly written as a children’s book, and hence void of the graphic brutality that other WWII narratives such as Saving Private Ryan depict, Serraillier’s work had an underlying sense of fear that was palpable. I understood  the Polish family’s misery as they fought starvation and the elements, all while fleeing the SS and evading capture. There is certainly the sense that this is a group of siblings who have been torn apart; and when healing finally arrives, it will only cover emotional wounds that are too deep to ever forget.

Both the picaresque and the humor of Wind in the Willows made it a truly remarkable text. Toad, the protagonist, sets off on a voyage down the river he has lived beside for many years. Many exploits await (him?) her in the journey ahead. What drew me to this book most, however, was the sense of travel and freedom. The world was truly Toad’s oyster and he went about savoring it. The inquisitiveness and curiosity that are behind Toad’s acquisition of a boat, preparation for the trip, and finally saying goodbye to friends before heading out are the same feelings I experience before each trip, even today. Each day on the road presents itself as a new opportunity to re-invent myself. That’s a rare gift we nomads have; routines have a way of wearing us down to a monotonous set of habits. Thankfully, the open road beckons!

On Reading … (Consuming White Pop Culture)

More than once, all our good intentions to work hard and be responsible were jeopardized by TV. What could our young minds do but bend in awe of television dramas such as The Passions (UK), Home & Away (Australia) and Smurfs (USA)? The latter was especially addictive. It was an animation series, with a blue Smurf family: Papa Smurf, Mama Smurf, and a whole bunch of Smurf kids, aunts and uncles. The villain was a carnivorous cat, and its equally vile owner. Oh, and the show had the catchiest sound track ever. Even though I couldn’t tell why, there was something clearly American about the cartoon. And indeed it was, the original Smurfs (Les Schtroumpfs) aired in Belgium in the late Seventies. It was then imported into the North American market during the Eighties. Although production had stopped by 1989, it was so popular that reruns of the original shows aired well into the 2000s.

There was a lot of American pop culture circulating in my childhood. The two most significant books been the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys fiction series. Owning one of these books was badass; it gave you major street cred at school – regardless of whether you’d read them or not! Usually, it meant that the owner came from a family wealthy enough to buy imported books, or that they had visited the U.S. and bought the books there. Both possibilities totally tantalized our schoolboy minds. It was not unusual to have to beg and borrow before acquiring the reading rights of a Hardy Boys book. Often, the owner would only let you read the book at school, no way they’d allow you to go home with it. For one, you might choose to conveniently forget the book at your house the next day, or the kid’s parents might ask to see the book that evening. Books were expensive; if they went missing, even for an evening, you could expect a scolding, at best, or maybe even a spanking. But sometimes I’d be lucky enough to take a book home, sometime even for a weekend. Bliss!

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Consuming American Pop Culture

In the current, supposedly, “post-racial” American social scene, it’s quite fascinating thinking back to Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. These books had NO black characters, not one. Zilch. Sleuthing and clever detective work was a decidedly white, middle-class pursuit that folks of color were simply not privy to. Either black people had no crime in their neighborhoods or they were wholly unable to tackle it. Probably more of the latter. The protagonists in both texts had this aura of leisure. They pursued detective work because they had the time, and the resources for it. They had access to vehicles, computer and telecommunications equipment, cash, contacts, etc. that were clearly part and parcel of their social class. This was a world apart from the one I occupied. Where I lived, white people were rare and far between. And always rich. In the novels, people who looked like me barely showed up. I accepted those two worlds as is.

The British Famous Five series had many of the same features.  4 white kids, and their dog, who went on holidays, visited the circus, sniffed out trouble, and solved it. There was a nomadic air to these kids. I got the sense that they could travel anywhere they wanted. Even their dog seemed to have a better life than I did. I tried to collar on one of the mutts we were always trying to domesticate. My dog couldn’t appreciate that I was beckoning him into a world of mystery and adventure. One where we’d skulk around our neighborhood in the dead of night, skipping in and out of shadows as we cursed the bright moon. Glory and fame awaited our crime-busting duo! After several attempts I gave up on the uncultured canine. I’m certain I saw a flicker of rejoicing on that dog’s face.

On Reading …

In primary school, I learnt that Africa’s storytelling tradition produced a variety of genres. The most prominent were myths of origin; “how” stories – e.g. how the tortoise beat the hare; and “why” stories – e.g. why the lion sleeps during the day. As I later came to learn, these texts represented the first wave of African literary production. In the first half of the 20th Century, after several decades under European colonization, Africans turned to cultural production in order to shore up their sense of self, and to prepare for the inevitable battle for political self-determination. If mass protests and employee strikes did not yield immediate success in ousting foreign rule – and how could they, when such actions often incited violent reprisals from colonial administrators – subjects of British, French, Belgium German, and Portuguese imperialism turned to the cultural realm. Licking their wounds after strikes on the Dakar-Niger Railroad, the Ethiopian railway service, and at the port of Mombasa, Africans returned to their treasure trove of oral traditions for guidance. Authors collected anthologies of proverbs, sayings, riddles, songs, and stories.

It was these collections of orature that I would later encounter at Ngong Hills Academy, five decades on. There was a large number of African story books circulating between us kids. Such tales inevitably involved giants and ogres, talking animals, and feuding humans. Our school library supplemented these with boxes of books that were brought to class by our class teacher for distribution during “Reading Hour.” The entire room would go silent, after the usual and attendant chaos that emanates from 10-year olds choosing what to read. East African Why Stories by Pamela Kola, for instance, had tales such as “How the Goat Became Our Friend,” “How the Hawk and the Crow Came to Hate Each Other,” and “How the Beans Came to Have a Black Sport on Them.” I loved these texts. The language was simple and easy to follow – think Old Man & the Sea. There was nothing pretentious about them. As woks of fiction, they had initially been commissioned to demonstrate the colonial fallacy that Africans could not write, read, or produce anything intellectual.

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Burning Grass by Cyprian Ekwensi

In Dec 2015, I travelled to Kenya for the Christmas holidays. 7 months earlier, I’d graduated with my PhD in English and had been fortunate to have my mom join me in Miami for the ceremony. As she departed, we’d agreed that my family would hold a bigger get-together later that year to truly celebrate my achievements, with relatives and family friends in attendance.

During those actual festivities, in the midst of all the goat barbecues, plates of pilau rice, and cups of porridge, my mom stood up to address those who’d joined us. She narrated how back when she still had an accounting job in Nairobi, book peddlers would swing by their Kenya National Assurance offices at Bima House and offer books on credit. I’d buy books and pay for them bit by bit before getting enough cash to make a new purchase, she said. Buying books was a luxury, it meant giving up on other wants such as a nice wardrobe, fancy shoes, a car, etc. In the end, however, mom was convinced that her nerdy investments had been worth it. She finished by urging young mothers to provide resources that inspired their children’s reading and that helped them develop curiosity and intellect.

I, too, would agree. Those books were game changers for my sisters and I. They introduced us to an outside world that was beyond anything we knew. Our family library included a 5-volume collection of Bedtime Stories, as well as Christian stories from across the African continent. I’d rush home from school with my play buddies but once in the house I had 3 tasks to accomplish first. The first thing to do was get out of my school uniform and keep it nicely in preparation for school the next day. The next item on the agenda was a quick snack. By which I mean feasting on whatever had been left over from lunch the same day, or from last night’s dinner. Thinking back, it’s amazing how much food I was able to tack into my stomach. I’d have breakfast before heading out the door in the morning. My school prepared lunch for us at around midday – often rice and beans, or Ugali and beans. At 4:30pm, when I walked into the house from school, my first destination was usually the kitchen: in search of food.  And of course, I’d have dinner later in the evening at around 9pm.

I have distinct memories of sitting at our dining table, a plate of Ugali and pumpkin leave stew in front of me. I’d dip into the food with my right hand, as my left hand held down a book of children’s stories from Malawi. I was only barely aware of my mouth accepting food, chewing, and swallowing. Instead, I was engrossed in the suspense surrounding a protagonist who’d ran into a snake. To make matters worse, this happened when she’d gone down to the river with friends, precisely what her mother had asked NOT to do. I could identify. My snack and reading break often had to be abruptly aborted because dusk was creeping in. And with it, my mother. Before she arrived it was imperative that my sisters and I have finished our to-do list. That usually included things like doing dishes, watering the vegetable garden, feeding our pet rabbits,  making dinner for the dog, lighting a fire and boiling water, and taking a shower.