Sheila, My Love

Sheila was the bane of my existence. I loved her. Deeply, in that teenage boyish fashion. Sheila’s beauty was a little bit physical; she was short, dark, curvy yet lean. Her hair was always tied in a pony tail, blow dried. She mostly wore pants, denim, with a plaid jumper just a size too big. But this simply added to the allure; it made me imagine what lay underneath. Mostly though, she was just cool, and suave. In a way I could never hope to be. Her eyes had this way of passing over you that left you feeling both the luckiest man alive, and also the sorriest human anywhere! It was bittersweet. It was a drug that I could not get enough of. And I craved for my daily fix: every weekday evening on my way home from school.

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Mostly though, she was just cool, and suave. In a way I could never hope to be.

After getting off the bus at Embulbul terminus, I’d walk through the one-street town. The main road splits the shopping center in half. Right next to the tarmac was a government-sponsored water project which in addition to selling portable water to local households, also had a tree and flower nursery going. You could buy trees every rainy season to fulfill your part in the national drive towards reforestation. The plot next to the tree nursery was empty, offering space for events as varied as evangelical Christian crusades, or open-air film screenings courtesy of the Kenya Film Commission. I only attended these night events once or twice, but I knew the routine well: action flick projected onto a white sheet, powered by a rowdy generator. Once the cowboy, or more recently, Kung Fu picture was over, you could expect the violence to migrate from the screen to the audience. Rotten eggs, moldy and smelly vegetables, and sometimes human feces, would fly in between rivals gangs: boys with grand dreams of thug-dom.

Fittingly, the opposite side of the road housed Embulbul’s bastion of peace: the Catholic Church. It was still under construction, a mabati structure that was a sizeable upgrade from the timber church a few blocks down. The congregation had expanded, enough to afford the architecturally ambitious edifice for which we were forever contributing donations and performing funds drives. There was even a 3-D model displayed at the church’s main entrance. Right next to the fountain containing Holy Water. Our future cathedral promised to be a scenic upgrade in a town where half the homes were still built of mud and wattle.

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After getting off the bus at Embulbul terminus, I’d walk through the one-street town. The main road splits the shopping center in half.

An avenue branched off to the left towards Wa-Job’s shop. He was our family grocer. He extended us credit, as well as other smaller favors. I could deposit my gumboots in his shop if it had been raining on my way to school in the morning. Two blocks down, on the same side of the street, was the local Masjid, the mosque. The Muslim community was not that large, so their white and green structure would not need an upgrade for another decade or more. I’d branch off the main street and weave in between narrow footpaths, past Peninah’s house, and John Mzungu’s compound. Peninah was cute, but she had nothing on Sheila. Sheila was a bad girl, Peninah was just nice. Mugumo-ini Bar and Restaurant was at the edge of town, just where the nascent municipal council ceded authority, and plots were actually titled. D.O., as the proprietor of Mugumo-ini was called, having been a former District Office, had opened a beer and nyama choma joint. It was frequented by some of our neighbors, at least on those off days when, lacking cash, they needed credit and could not visit the more popular watering holes such as Jamba Square.

Past Mugumo-ini you go down hill, with two local tycoons’ homes on your right: Jimmy’s first, then Kirui’s. Both men made their money from quarrying stones in the area. This was Embulbul’s version of industrial magnates. Opposite Kirui’s house was a large real estate development that had been built in the late 80s. It probably held close to a hundred 1 and 2-bedroom apartments, all single storied. For some reason, however, Kamunya’s private development never took off. Most of the houses were empty, despite the formidable stone wall that fenced the entire estate. This was in contrast to an 8-roomed affair that always had tenants right opposite the main entrance to Kamunya’s property. The wooden structures of this two-rowed apartments were already aging by the late 90s, but that did not detract potential tenants. And right next door lived Sheila, with her mother and elder brother.

Mama Sigidi, as Sheila’s mother, ran a small vegetable stall right at their front gate. The structure was hurriedly knocked together using Eucalyptus poles, poached from Oloolua Forest, gunny sacks, and one piece of mabati to keep away the elements. The mabati mostly failed in its duties. The produce was often sitting in the sun, or had to be shelved away whenever it rained. Sheila ran the stall. As children are expected to. She’d open shop in the evenings, just in time to catch the work crowd hurrying home to prepare supper. Kale was on offer, so too was spinach, tomatoes, onions, sometimes even a few roots of garlic. There were also fruits, depending on what was in season: avocado, bananas, oranges, and plums. Other than plums, the rest could be bought wholesale at Mkulima’s farm –  a big operation on the next ridge.

So get this, Embulbul has a sizeable farmers’ market, where you could find all kinds of fresh produce. In my pubescent infatuation, I would however, walk right past all these offerings, just to go buy a banana, at Sheila’s stall. And if I was feeling particularly wealthy I’d throw in an avocado. The 3-minute interaction I’d have with Sheila was absolutely worth it. That I was also getting a healthy daily serving of fruits was just an added bonus. I’d say hello, my school bag slung on my left shoulder. Looking cool even as my heart fluttered. I’d stretch my arm, snaking it past the small window where customers handed in their cash. I’d point to the banana I wanted her to sell me. Having chosen an avocado that was just ripe, I’d reach for my wallet in right back pocket. If I was lucky our fingers would graze as she accepted the cash. Heaven was finding her in a good mood so that we could chat for a few minutes longer.

The magazines I’d read about girls told me it was quite important to establish what their hobbies were. Sheila’s were reading novels (Danielle Steele), traveling, and swimming. In hindsight, we all had those canned responses. Borne out of strange fantasies to connect with foreign pen pals who would revel us with news about the west, perhaps send us expensive books and electronics at Christmas, or possibly airlift us out of Moi’s austerity-prone autocracy into legal adoption, free tertiary education, and a Green Card. And so we all listed swimming as a hobby. Even though we could not have seen a swimming pool but once, or twice, and even then only on TV.

Often I was unlucky. And the girl of my dreams would be sitting with one of the tenants who rented a room from Mama Sigidi. While I didn’t hold grudges against the lady, given that I didn’t even know her name, I did grow to loathe her. She seemed alive merely to thwart my romantic aspirations. She would impatiently stare at me while Sheila counted out my change, as though I was the intruder. I resented those looks! And I envied her easy familiarity with Sheila, that she lived right next door to the woman I wanted to take out for a date. Since I could not genuinely hate her, I transferred my dislike to her diseased ear lobe. She had a tumor the size of a golf ball growing off the top cartilage in her right ear. It was ripe and shiny, swollen tight. And sometimes I could spot a dribble of pus making its way down past her ear lobe. Probably an ear piercing gone wrong. I never found out, and had no sympathy. The universe, on my behalf, had served her poetic justice for her rude interruptions.

The best part about having teenage infatuations is meeting these people, fifteen years later, and seeing how much or how little they’ve changed. Sheila is still good looking. We’ll walk past each other, like ships in the night, perhaps once every time I’m in Kangawa. Cheers to our younger selves!

 

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My Aga Khan Academy Years – Fashionable!

I accumulated my cash slowly. I took to carrying lunch from home. Mother would boil rice for my sisters and I in the evening. Often the dish would be sprinkled with tomatoes, or carrots. Mostly with potatoes, since these were cheaper. Taking lunch to school was tricky business. A dish of plain rice, flavored with leek onions, salt, and a spoonful of oil could not compete against the sumptuous dishes served at the Aga Khan cafeteria. There were all kinds of goodies to be had: half chicken with fries, burgers, meat, chicken, and veggie pies, beef sausages, and pizza. For drinks, you had a choice of smoothies, soda, fruit juice, or chocolate milk. But all these goodies cost money: more cash than my lunch allowance. It wasn’t too difficult acknowledging that this diet would not be for me. I grudgingly accepted my simple bowl of rice. Gradually becoming less and less embarrassed about joining my peers at the cafeteria bandas while they feasted on juicy chicken thighs. I watched my piggy bank grow, even though once in a while I’d indulge in a bottle of Picana mango soda.

Finally, one Monday, after receiving my weekly bus and lunch money it seemed like I had enough cash for my RENKs. I put aside what I’d need for my five-day commute, feeling very rich. But I chose to bid my time. It was better to wait till Friday, or at least Thursday, in case it rained and my bus ticket went up which would have skewed my calculations. School couldn’t end early enough on the Friday afternoon I picked up my boots. All through Social Studies I dreamt about that new shoe smell. I skipped my evening library session that day, and dashed out the gate as soon as we were let out. One matatu later, I was speed walking from Odeon Cinema towards King’s Collection.

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I woke up to prepare for the first service at Embulbul Mother of God Catholic Church.

Most of these shops are owned by Asian Kenyans, with a black labor force. The black guy watches you for a bit once you enter the store. You’ll probably have to leave your back pack at the entrance with the guard. In his store keeper’s coat, the salesman looks short for his height. The shop is plugged with an aroma of ubani, Indian incense; other exciting spices mingle in the air. But I hadn’t walked in to exercise my olfactory muscles. I made straight for the boots, pointing them out and inhaling deeply as the salesperson placed them on the counter in front of me. This is a big ticket item. The guy doesn’t know whether to begin anticipating a nice commission or to indulge my obviously overpriced dreams. He plays along when I ask to try on the shoes. I sit at a bench, emblazoned with a scale that customers could use to determine their shoe size, and take off my black and dusty school shoes. The fellow comes around from behind his counter; what the hell, his demeanor suggests , it’s a slow afternoon after all, I have a few moments to indulge this kid.

I tried on the size 9s; they were a bit too small. I had no wriggle room at the back of my foot. The attendant suggested I try a size 10. the second pair fit a lot better. With a pair of socks on, they were just snug. I concluded that’s the pair I’d be taking home with me. It was now time to see  if I could squeeze a discount out of the Mhindi. I asked again about the price as I put my school shoes back and stood up. The sales attendant repeated the original sticker price. I’d shopped with my mom often enough to know that the shop would offer me a small discount if I persisted. I looked at the main boss, seating behind the register in a sleeveless cardigan, holding his unshaved face in his left arm. Bored. He dismissively interjected and gave a slightly lower final price, only KSHS 50 discounted. I figured I should take what I got. The shopkeeper suddenly  got a lot more animated when I moved to pull out my wallet. He was glad I hadn’t simply been wasting their time window shopping out my price range.

I handed over the cash. The manager rang up the till, deposited the cash, and handed my receipt to his clerk. The sales attendant looked at the receipt, confirmed that indeed I’d paid for my boots in full, even though he’d witnessed the whole transaction. Bureaucracy! He  then proceeded to pack my boots into their box, carefully extracting the old bunched newspapers which had been used to help keep the shoes in shape. After being deposited in a cardboard box, the shoes were placed in a plastic shopping bag. The big shiny kind that you take with you on your annual trip to the folks upcountry. This is the kind of plastic bag that declares its modernity; it screams of middle class luxury and is content in its ostentatiousness. It calls attention to itself. You cannot face it and not marvel at its holder. I walked out feeling richer than I’d walked in. And isn’t that the marvel of consumerism? You spend your hard-earned money and walk out feeling as though you’ve just made a billion dollar investment.

This was Friday. I couldn’t wait for Sunday mass. I woke up to prepare for the first service at Embulbul Mother of God Catholic Church. I always went for the 8am service. I liked how efficient it was: one hour, in and out, and you’re salvaged from eternal damnation. It was such a good deal, I usually threw in a Wednesday evening service at half past six on my way home from school. Another great bargain: you got served prayers, worship songs, AND Holy Communion, in under 30 minutes. Sunday eventually, slowly, rolled in. I might have been headed to church, but I was dressed to kill. My pants were tailor-made; the material had a brown sheen to it, like velvet, but not quite. I wore my trousers above the waist at the time. It was a classic mode made endearing to us by Congolese Lingala musicians. I paired it with a white t-shirt, with yellow arm bands. Then I had my boots; I was looking hot.

I got to church on time, and mass went on without a hitch. There was one girl I’d been eyeing for a month or so now. She usually sang with the youth choir, and also served as the liaison between the youth group and the parish administration, including Father Kevin, the in-house priest. It was with much dismay that I realized she’d missed first mass this morning. Perhaps I’d run into her on the way out, I consoled my disappointed self. Once we exited the church, back under a clear blue sky, with the sun already promising another hot equatorial afternoon, I forgot all about Ciku. I was off chasing another skirt; one who lived much closer to my house. I’d spotted Waithera sitting on the other side of the church from me. She was not an early morning kind of person, so this was my one opportunity to chat her up as we walked back home together. This was going to be exciting! I’d almost walked towards her to say hello, when I remembered I had some shopping to do before going home. Argh! My Casanova role was immediately replaced by the butler in me. It was off to the grocer’s for sugar, salt, and flour. If I was quick, I thought, I might yet catch up with Waithera. Needless to say, that walk back to my house was hurried, and fruitless; either the girl was too fast for me, or she took an entirely different route home. What a waste of an entirely handsome outfit!

My Aga Khan Academy Years – Boots Edition

By the time I spent my ill-gotten wealth on the camera, I’d been dreaming about it for several months. On my way from Odeon Cinema, where the passenger vans from Aga Khan/Highridge dropped you off, to the bus station where I’d get onto a 111, there was a photo studio. The first floor had a shop window facing busy Ronald Ngara where you could buy film, flash, and cameras. I chose an MDx610. It came in a crispy blue box, with dark grey corners. The camera itself was made of plastic. There was a shutter button on the top right, and a sliding lever to open the lens cover on the bottom left. This was a big purchase. I knew my mom would ask where I’d gotten the money. I did not want to get into trouble. I was happy committing the crime, but had no intention of doing the time. I spoke with my cousin, Wainaina, to figure out what to do.

Wainaina lived with us at the time. He was the day-to-day manger on our family quarrying operation. He doubled as a laborer while also managing the books. As a result, he always had cash on him. I talked him into agreeing to convince my mother that he’d fronted me the money to buy a camera, and that I’d pay him back with time. Mother did not bring it up with me; if she did follow up with Wainaina, it was behind my back. I began my photography career taking portraits of quarry workers. I knew them through my cousin, and given how notoriously bad they are at repaying debt, it was important to have some sort of relationship that I could lean on when it came time to collect. Each copy was KSHS 25. Men would pose shirtless, holding steel rivets and stone mallets, or with the 30 foot hand-held drill bits used to prepare cliff walls for blasting.

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I often never got paid for my portraiture. Quarry workers are experts at getting rid of creditors.

I might have had the hardware, but the skills were still lacking. Pressing the shutter release button was easy enough. Making sure the image was properly focused, and that the lighting would not mess up the portrait was a lot harder. To get better, I began diligently perusing the photography books and magazines that our school library stocked. In one part of our library, closest to the entrance, the staff had arranged glossy copies of PC Magazine, Digital Photography, National Geographic, Reader’s Digest, Time, Economics, and Newsweek. These material was meant to complement our studies and open us to a global stage full of opportunities. It worked to varying degrees amongst the student body, but it certainly gave me a better idea of what I was aiming for in my photography. Alongside portraiture, I began to venture into landscape shots. The 35mm lens, however, was ill-suited for the kind of wide-angled composition I imagined in my head. I’d take images to document the environmental degradation in Oloolua Forest, courtesy of a rampant quarrying industry, and the resulting work came out looking weird. Instead of expansive vistas, my developed pictures would mostly have ghostly-looking bushes with objects out of focus.

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I began to venture into landscape shots.

To make matters worse, I often never got paid for my portraiture. Quarry workers are experts at getting rid of creditors. By tradition, they get an advance on Wednesday evening, and their weekly pay is calculated on Saturday afternoon. They are paid by the feet. Say they’ve cut 400 feet of 9×9 stones, 600 feet of 6×9 stones, and 250 feet of 4×9 stones. Each of these will be compensated at  different rates, with 9×9 stones fetching the highest price. As stone masons are wont to do, they let slip from their minds that they got an advance just three days before. When their weekly paycheck is tallied up, and the cash they got on Wednesday deducted, they always walk away with a feeling of being robbed. They were rather impossible fellows to please because if you ever suggested doing away with the mid-week advance ritual they were sure to howl oppression and bloody murder! What all these boils down to is that quarry workers are rather hard to part from their hard-earned cash. It must have to do with the back-breaking work they do all day, crushing rocks, and cutting quarry chips. I was not the only one to suffer this fate. Quarry workers eat 3 meals a day, at work, after breakfast in their own homes, and they fully anticipate a heavy dinner in the evening. Suffice it to say they run up a pretty tab at the lunch shacks they frequent. The understanding is that the ladies who own this establishments advance them credit under expectations of receiving an advance on Wednesday, and for all accounts to be cleared on Saturday. Since the men have to eat every day, these ladies had a better chance of recovering their debts. I only saw these fellows on Saturdays, by which time they’d be in a great big hurry to get home, take a shower, and hit the town for a round of drinks with friends and colleagues. Many of these Saturday night debacles left the fellows quite penniless by Monday morning. If you didn’t get your money on Saturday evening, you might as well forget it till next weekend. I was too often faced with this scenario that I soon came to the conclusion I’d never turn a profit from this kind of photography.

Turns out I was as unsuccessful a photographer as I was a pick-pocket. I still remember the time I got caught. I’d just replaced a wallet I’d hoped to fish some cash from. The thing was empty, so I put it back in the back left pocket, folded the pants as I recalled finding them, and turned to exit from the changing room. And that’s when several form two boys walked in. Fortunately, they found no evidence on me. Unfortunately, that did not stop them. They had very strong suspicions of what I’d been doing, and they simply ran with that. They questioned me, demanding to know whether I’d been stealing from them. I objected. They did not take kindly to my resistance. Georgie began to look unsure, maybe I really was as innocent as I claimed. Moha ignored any doubts. Stano had the most resolve in this gang of three. He wanted answers, yesterday! His open hand connected with the right side of my face. I winced, but did not give them the satisfaction of seeing my tears. They grabbed my collar and threatened even more violence. But I knew I had them; I stood my ground. Eventually they pushed me out of the changing room. I walked out silently vowing revenge.

The next morning, I went straight to the Dean of Students’ office. I knew that Stano and his buddies were often in trouble. However guilty I might have been, I resented being bullied. Combined with the fact that I always came across as a goodie-two-shoes, I knew that in a he-said-they-said contest, the school administration would side with me. The Dean of students was a 50-something Asian lady; I laid out my complaint: three form two boys had bullied me. Aga Khan was a private school, where parents paid a tidy sum to get their students a cushy high school education. Physical violence was not tolerated, not even if it was only directed at the poor scholarship kids. Dean Prajani was mad. Georgie, Moha, and Stano were summoned to her office.  I repeated my complaint. They brought up the whole pick-pocketing thing. But they had no evidence, and a long record of delinquency. I had a nice row of A’s and B’s on my report card. I won. They were pissed! And I could empathize. They had basically caught me red handed, yet they had ended up being reprimanded. All because I came across as a good boy; I never forgot the power of perceptions.

I also learnt my lesson: crime does not pay. I scrimped lunch money for my next purchase. On Tom Mboya street, there was a clothes emporium called the King’s Collection. It sold everything from colored pairs of socks, to pocket handkerchiefs, dress shirts, suits, blankets, and rain jackets. On their display window, they had a dazzling pair of brown boots. I loved those shoes, and the day I purchased them, with cash from my own savings, was so fulfilling! They had a thick rubber sole, black. The label, RENK, was embroidered in yellow letters on the outer side of each shoe. They had laces and a metal buckle. And imitation felt cushion at the top. I desired those boots more than I’d ever wanted anything else. I salivated over them. I stood opposite  the display window and imagined the kinds of adventures such boots would lead me to. I conquered the world wearing those shoes. I beat off school and village bullies while donning those boots. And, of course, I swept gorgeous ladies off their sexy feet and skinny legs in those brown RENKs. It was clear I had to own them and add them to my wardrobe. They were a good KSHS1,500. My lunch allowance was KSHS50 per day. This was going to be one long month!

 

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.

My Aga Khan Academy Years – The Flood

There were multiple reasons why I’d get home late, some more legit than others. For instance, there was this one weekday in 1998 when I got home at 11pm – soaking wet, tired, hungry, and so reluctant to be getting up at 5am the next morning to do it all over again! This was how El Nino came to be on everyone’s tongue.

This was an evening shared with about 120 other commuters on an old, rickety, route 111 Kenya Bus Service. It took us 3 hours to move from the terminal to Nyayo House, a distance of not more than 1 mile. It was pure torture.  Body odors went beyond overpowering. Forget personal space; there was barely enough room for everyone who was determined to get home that night. About 10 men hang on from the back and front doors. Their limbs going numb after they’d clutched a foothold for over an hour. It was a miserable experience that succinctly epitomized how derelict Nairobi as a city had become. Our dysfunctional urban infrastructure was plainly visible.

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And the rains came down hard

And yet, it had begun so well. By now, about eight months into my high school career, I’d already become adept at swinging in and out of moving vehicles. It’s a skill that comes in handy in Nairobi’s CBD. You can skip out of a bus in motion and possibly save whatever bus fare the conductor was going to ask from you. But even if you had no qualms paying your ticket, the ability to drop off at will could save you a long walk. This particular evening, I’d skillfully caught a bus as it rounded the corner onto Ronald Ngala Avenue and just past a 1930s Sikh temple. The bus kept on towards Tom Mboya St, belching a cloud of diesel smoke as it passed a photographers’ studio where I often had my film processed and developed. We swung right at the Moi Avenue intersection, crawling through a vehicular bottleneck between two very busy bus stops: Ambassador to our right, and KenCom on our left.

As always, the bus stopped at KenCom to pick up passengers. No one got off since nobody takes a bus from KBS to Kencom, but clearly tons of people couldn’t be bothered to walk down to the terminus to catch a bus. For their laziness, they were rewarded with a vehicle that was nearly always full. More often than not, by the time route 111 got to KenCom, it was standing room only, and this evening was no exception. I had managed to get one of the last seating spaces left, at the back row, squeezing myself amongst six other passengers. At this point the Kenyan transit industry was still the Wild West, and proprietors could get away with anything. Buses were packed like one of those mtumba bales that came in from abroad with second hand clothing, tight and to the brim. After all the seats were occupied, passengers began filling the center aisle. As that got jam packed, too, passengers would begin sliding into the seats. By the time the bus was considered to be a full capacity, every seat had three passengers. Never mind that it was designed for two. There’d be two people seated, and one person standing in between them. Each time the bus lurched sideways, the standing passenger would bump his or her rump into the two people behind him. Forget privacy. That was a luxury reserved for the well-to-do who drove a personal vehicle.

The bus slowly made its way out and onto City-Hall Way. The first couple of rain drops sounded like we were sheltering underneath a mabati house. The splashes were fat and heavy:  lazily landing on the roof as if to merely announce their presence, and the imminent arrival of a much bigger delegation. They were the liquid version of Kenya’s J J Kamotho and Cyrus Jirongo, sycophants who swept into dusty towns in rural Kenya to whip up enthusiasm for a Moi entourage, and attendant presidency, upon which everyone wished nothing but a quick demise. This was going to be a large gathering, as the dark, heavy and pregnant clouds had predicted all day. Our driver soon had to turn on his wipers. The sun-cracked rubber squeegeed its way across the wide glass, dutifully policing an earlier accumulation of dust. Water flowed down the sides of the bus; each braking sent a river down the front, and each acceleration a smaller stream down the back. The men hanging out the doors had given up looking brave. It was clear this was a deluge to rival all others. Ten minutes into our ride, as we all leaned left, to counter balance the vehicle’s right turn onto Parliament Road, the hanger-on’s had been transformed into a sorry bunch of bedraggled rats. There’s nothing cool about getting wet on your commute home; no come-back whatsoever when Mother Nature pisses all over your used suit, warping the already over-sized jacket into a bloated version of its former self. Newspapers, duly saved earlier that day to be shared with eager spouses later that evening, were damped onto the roadside. Soaked, and with their ink running, there was no one waiting to be lifted into the realms of middle class respectability by association with these ghostly markers of urbanity.

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Each time you thought it was over, the downpour began with renewed vigor

We painfully inched past the Holy Family Basilica on our right, glancing briefly to see if there was any salvation coming from that end. None. Even God had closed shop for the day and deserted Nairobi to its own sodden demise. It was now half past six. We’d boarded the bus an hour ago, and barely moved a kilometer since. Within the confines of nauseating body odor, someone made a comment about arriving home just in time for a quick shower tomorrow morning and the commute back to the office. We all privately digested this humor but furtively avoided eye contact. We’d obviously be home before dawn, we secretly insisted, but no one would publicly venture to predict when that would be.

We edged past the Intercontinental Hotel and Casino. Tonight, I wasn’t particularly concerned with what happened in its confines, as I did most evenings. I simply wanted to get home. Right onto Kaunda Street, and left on Koinange Street. We’d navigated three sides of the Basilica yet the main occupant was nowhere to be seen. Things were thick. The rain was now coming down in sheets. Visibility had dwindled to less than a 100 meters and our driver could barely navigate by following the brake lights in front of him. At least those private car occupants had space. We had to make do with less square footage than is allocated chickens on their way from up country to Nairobi – housed as they are in coops made of twigs and trussed up on the roof of a Mbukoni matatu. It was wet outside the bus, and wet inside from passenger sweat. We turned left on Kenyatta Avenue and the bus wheezed into the Posta bus stop. Sure the vehicle was full, but that was no reason why we couldn’t try to squeeze in one or two more commuters.

It was almost half past eight by the time we maneuvered past the Nyayo House round about. Uhuru Park had now transformed into a veritable rice paddy. Gone were the lunch time idlers who chewed on air burgers, unsuccessfully trying to quell the pangs  in their bellies with faith rather than a meal. Gone, too, were the itinerant preachers who set up shop on the pavements, promising fire and brimstone to idolaters, adulterers, and murders, but not daring say squat about corrupt government officials. Speaking of bribe-fueled politics, even Moi’s commemorative statue in the middle of the park seemed extra heavy tonight. The water coming down from the heavens had soured its usually autocratic air even more.

This was a commute for the ages. We eventually got out of the CBD and made it to a stretch of Ngong Road that had less traffic. But none of it was smooth sailing. We stopped at Milimani Courts, Kenyatta Hospital, Mimosa, Adams Arcade, and eventually Dagoretti Corner. At each stop the commuters trying to board the bus outnumbered those alighting. Folks who normally walk to and fro work tried to stay dry by catching a ride home. Needless to say, many of them were dramatically unsuccessful on both fronts.

I didn’t get off that bus till about 10:30pm that evening. And I took the road less travelled. Normally I can disembark from a matatu at Em Bul Bul and walk to my house. But with the heavy rains all afternoon, I knew I’d be facing a raging river, in the dark. Under such conditions, it’s always advisable to take the Vet route. It’s basically the next stage after Bul Bul, a little longer, but much more convenient. By the time I knocked on our door at 11pm, I was fed up with commuting to school up to here! And yes, I could look forward to doing all over again tomorrow; lucky me.

Prize Giving Day

Parents Day began with one of those lazy kind of mornings where no serious work got done, but everyone busily pretended to do it anyway. Teachers were itching for the ordeal to be over. One could tell from the numerous, often conflicting, instructions we received.

-Head over towards the sports fields!

Then a few minutes later …

-Hey you! Just where do you think you’re going? I said all students should stay in class!

In between haphazard adult supervision, we kids squeezed in rehearsals of the songs and dances we’d be performing for our families that afternoon. Mr. Mike’s A-Capella belted out Luhya lullabies and tuned their voices through a series of vowel sounds. It was essential that they bring their A-game, given that they’d lead everyone in singing the National Anthem. If you weren’t singing, or practicing your drama skits, you were tasked with decorating the classrooms and hallways. This is where all those boing art & craft lessons came into play. We twisted colored ribbons and hung the patterns from doorways and windows. Colored chalked adorned the blackboards with words of welcome: Welcome To Ngong Hills Academy; Strive to Excel; Karibuni Wazazi; We Love You. Everyone tried to leave their mark on the mosaic; later, as you shyly walked your parent/guardian through the room, you’d not only point out where you sat during class, but also which part of the collage you’d contributed to.

After lunch, we were corralled into the sports field, and essentially put into lock down. School prefects had total supremacy over us from that point on. No one would be let through the gate till the day’s events were over. To get to the restrooms, cleaned out from the usual fecal and urine mess that permanently covered the floors, you had to walk behind the classes. Each step of the way you were under the Nazi supervision of class 8 prefects. The sadistic bastards. From the field to the loos, you trotted. Strolling, and peeking to see the ceremony’s proceedings, would either earn you a scolding, or you’d lose your chance to walk to the bathroom. The boys resolved this conundrum by simply making use of the shrubs that grew alongside the sports field fence. The girls had to be more creative.

To be honest though, Prize Giving Day wasn’t half bad if you were performing on stage. You had freedom of movement, unlike the sorry bunch stuck in the field with no hydration and no shade. But the event was especially superb if you were receiving an academic award. This is why Juliet and I feuded so bitterly. The chance to walk up to the headmistress, in front of all the parents, plus some of your peers, was great. For one, it assured you a seat in one of the classes next to where the ceremony was taking place. At the appropriate time, a teacher would herd the lot of you behind the stage. From there, you’d wait till your name was called by the master of ceremony, usually Mr. David, because of his polished accent. You’d straighten your school uniform one last time, walk in measured steps up the dais, and cross over to Mrs Mureithi’s outstretched hands. While maintaining eye contact, you’d shake her hand, receive your trophy, smile appreciatively and walk off. As a prize winner, and hence a serious student, you were allowed the privilege of hanging around until the awards ceremony ended. At which point you’d do one of two things: locate your family for a tour of the school, and claim possession of several sodas (Fantas and Cokes being the most popular choice) plus as many biscuits as the servers would allow you. Not necessarily in that order. The losers in the field would have to wait a few more minutes before the goodies slowly made their way to them. More often, the impatient students would push and shove through the field gate, overpower the prefects and the teacher on duty and bulldoze their way to their parents’ side. Lesson learnt: never stand between a hungry school kid and her snacks. She will go around you, or through you, but either way she’s unstoppable!

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Prize Giving Day was also a nice culmination of the efforts learners and educators had put in over the past academic year. For instance, there was Mr. Kariuki’s math tutoring. By the time we were in grade 7 and 8, less than 2 years from a major Kenyan examination that would determine much of our future prospects, Kariuki had made arrangements for private tutoring. A group of us would pay about 500 KSHS a month for the privilege of working with him after hours. Saying it that way makes it ridiculous that a teacher has to be compensated for additional time with his students. And yet this had become the norm in Kenyan education. Schools operated on budgets just above minimum, and the way to keep costs low was to suppress teacher salaries. As a private school employee, Kariuki actually had it better than his counterparts paid by the government to teach in public schools. Who can begrudge him a little bit more income? AND his tutorial work was pretty effective. We’d spend about 30 minutes working on math problems from past Kenya Certificate of Primary Education exams; the last half of our time together was spent going over the solutions. If I wasn’t consistently great at algebra and geometry, I could at least improveme through continuous practice.

Mr. Rapando contained his English grammar work to class time. No one was willing to pay extra for private classes on how to conjugate verbs or identify gerunds. Mr. Malelu’s GHC classes were epic! He taught a course that combined geography, history, and civics, focusing especially on the Kenya, and the African continent. The subject matter was essentially designed to give pupils a sense of place. So we’d begin by focusing on our small locality, then we’d learn more about the Rift Valley province, before discussing Kenya as an entirety. Navigating between both human and physical geography meant that on any given day we might be discussing climate, terrain, or a community’s primary economic activity: fishing, pastoralism, agriculture, etc. If there is anywhere in the Kenyan public sphere were stereotypes are recycled and propagated, it must be in GHC classes. We learnt where each ‘tribe’ is from. Dholuos are from Nyanza, and Gikuyus are from Central. We ingested the mainstream narrative about the independence struggle from British colonialism. We did not question. Malelu would thunder into class and begin a lecture on freedom struggles in the rest of the African continent. His favorite resistance must have been Mozambique’s. He’d end each class with the phrase “A Luta?” And we’d promptly respond, “Continua!”

Yet if Malelu could dramatize the resistance in front of our teenage eyes, Mr. Stanley fired up our imagination with the course material. Stanley told stories; and he did it really well! I remember his rendition of the Wangu wa Makeri saga. Essentially, the Gikuyu community got tired of living in a monarchy. They overthrew the king and installed Wangu as the leader. Turns out this was a big mistake. Wangu lorded it over the men, having them carry her on their backs, as well as bending on all fours so she could sit on them. The literal and metaphoric meanings of these acts were not lost on us. The Gikuyu men, Stanley continued, came together to determine the best way forward. Their solution revolved around biology. They all conspired to make their wives pregnant. Then on a pre-arranged day, they revolted and carried out a coup d’etat. Thrashing their pregnant and incapacitated women, the men took over government, and since then the community has always been led by a council of elders. Such stories  featured in many of our lessons with Stanley. In fact, even his lectures seemed to me quite a kin to story telling. And his story telling was that much more memorable because of his accent. Small wonder that at some point kids composed a rhyme in his honor. You knew it, but would never admit that you did, and woe unto anyone ever caught chanting:

In our country!

The major century!

A Mr. Stanley!

The song’s aim was to prolong that last consonant, just like Stanley always did.

Tr. Priscilla was nice, and there was kindness in her eyes behind those large Eighties glasses. We missed her when she left. More so because her Arts & Crafts lessons were handed over to some taciturn newbie. Tr. Lucy was fire. She was kinda pretty, and she certainly knew her material. But she was also on a power trip, and would suffer no fools. She often taught well, but even when she didn’t, you better pay attention to dove-tail joints, and T joints, and mortise and tendon joints, and tongue and grove joints. God, the lectures were dry! And it was all theory with absolutely no workshop space for us to practice. Yet Lucy would have none of that; she was teaching, and we had to learn. Failure to comply resulted in corporal punishment, and she was very skilled at leaving your palms red, bruised, and on fire using a stout, dry twig. Wincing from pain, our only consolation was to murmur “bitch!” and “devil!” out of her earshot. We also totally enjoyed spreading malicious gossip about her. There was one story circulating that Tr. Lucy had been caught in an affair with one of our classmate’s dad. Scandalous!

Not all teachers relied on the rod to mold our growing minds. And even when they did, it seemed entirely justified. Tr. Veronica seemed to truly enjoy her job teaching science and agriculture. Her and I got along pretty well. I didn’t even resent her when she punished me for fighting a fellow grade 5 classmate. On this particular day, one of our teachers was absent and we’d been asked to entertain ourselves. Eric Karuthiru insulted me, and got me mad. We started duking it out  right there in the middle of class, stumbling past desks and chairs. Our classmates loved the show: great entertainment! Veronica was teaching in the room next door. We never even saw her approach. Next thing I knew, she’d hauled us back to her class and she caned our hands in front of everyone else.

This was also around the same time when I’d risen to the top of the mchongoano game. To win, you had to be a master wordsmith. You needed to slay your opponent with choice language about a range of traits: his parents, his cowardice, his intellect, his body weight, etc. In ways we did not appreciate then, we were carriers of an ancient art on the continent: oral story telling. Within our hushed voices, barely loud enough to carry over the intervals of laughter that marked a fatal blow from your opponent, we practiced what griots have undertaken for centuries. If previous griots were praise-singers, our own currency was shame. You’d start out slow, tip-toeing around your opponent. It wasn’t until you were ready to strike them down that you’d use really personal information, or their performance in the most recent continuous assessment test, or their tears last time a teacher whooped their behind.

With such verbal skills, it was only natural that I soon graduated to print journalism. Tr. David gathered an outfit of students who were charged with editing and publishing the school’s first newsletter. The very first edition was essentially an anthology of collected works. It had not only poems – in both English and Swahili, but also stories, and essays. All these was nicely framed by a letter from the headmistress. In her short piece, Mrs. Mureithi narrated the humble beginnings of her educational experiment before laying out lofty goals that both teachers and pupils should aspire to. My own contribution was a rendition of the “How Tortoise Cracked His Shell” story. I handwrote the first draft, before handing it in for additional editing and proofreading by Tr. David. It was with a certain level of giddiness that I read my very first byline once the magazine, dubbed The Hill, finally appeared in all its black and white glory.

You just had to love our NHA teachers. There was Tr. Agnes, our class 4 GHC teacher, who once asked me whether I thought I had suddenly morphed into a university professor. She was rather exasperated by my cheeky behavior, aside from the fact that I was talking over her during a lecture. I rather disapproved of her sarcasm, but I got the point. Then there was Mr. Ogola. Ogola loved playing favorites, and Charity – who often performed best in our end of term exams – was his pet. During one particular lesson on weeds that hamper crop production, Ogola launched into the specifics of black jack. He then asked for the weed’s local name. Unfortunately, it happened to be one of those lazy kind of afternoons, where the Ugali you had at lunch simply sits in your belly and totally drains your brain of its thinking capacity. No one answered Ogola, and he grew feisty. As usual, he turned to Charity who replied that black jack is also called Miceege in Gikuyu. Ogola went on to make some snide remark about Charity having to not only teach us science, but also Gikuyu. This was not meant to reflect positively on us – a sorry bunch! But Tr. Jacinta topped the list of colorful characters. She taught Home Science – taking us through lessons on how to wash a baby, sew an apron, remove stains, and plan a balanced diet. After work, she concerned herself with a brood of almost 10 children. OK, perhaps they weren’t that many but even a family of 6 kids seemed ridiculously large to us, fed as we were, on a staple diet of family planning and the public acceptance of ideally 2, maximum 3, kids per family.

Good times these. But none surpasses my memory of being wrongly punished by Mrs. Mureithi. I think I was in fifth or sixth grade. I had been given some cash by my parents to pay tuition. Rather than hand in the money as soon as I got to school, I’d kept in my pocket through break time. Per usual, I’d then gone to the sport field to play, and promptly proceeded to lose the cash. This was carelessness of the highest level, given how scarce financial resources were at school. Yikes! My mother was mad. So angry she decided to have someone else handle my punishment. That evening I explained that I’d lost the money while playing at school. My misfortune was soon interpreted as theft, since I’d been given tuition many times before and it had never gone missing. Why now, my parents wanted to know? The next day mom showed up at school. I was pulled from class, and met her in Mrs. Mureithi’s office. Neither woman believed my “money got lost” story. Mrs. Mureithi proceeded to cane the truth out of me, using a piece of plastic water piping. The beating didn’t change my excuse, for the simple reason that it was the entire truth. The cash had dropped out of my pocket as I carelessly played during our morning break. I seriously resented them both for that unwarranted punishment.

If I’d been anywhere as cavalier as Edgar Mwadilo, I’d have cared a lot less about the caning. Mwadilo joined Ngong Hills Academy rather late in his KCPE career, but in a short amount of time, he rose to almost cartel kingpin status. One thing going for him was his physique. He was tallest in our class and bulky in build. This served him quite well on the football field. He could maneuver through our adolescent bodies like they simply didn’t exist – making his way to the goalpost – before sending a striker’s volley that always forced the opposing goalkeeper to cringe and step aside. There could have been no surer way to fame than prowess on the pitch! His athletic capabilities also manifested as leadership potential. In some ways, this gained him some respect among the teachers, most of whom were quite unimpressed by his performance in class. It was always a comical scene whenever a teacher attempted to administer corporal punishment on Mwadilo. Being so big, there was always the chance that he could strike back, even if just unwittingly as he defended himself from a teacher’s blows. He was almost Mr. Kariuki’s size, and there was more than one awkward moment when Mwadilo would tower over a furious Kariuki who was really trying to cower him, but really only succeeded in manifesting just how ridiculous the whole caning business was. Mwadilo wasn’t alone in this. Shiro once fought back against a teacher who was hell bent on striking her. She protested. Her actions did not go down well – followed as they were by reports to her parents that she’d gotten pig-headed and that her proverbial horns needed some serious trimming.

Ngong Hills was an institution filled with young hope and the outlook of a bright future. True to the Kenyan 8-4-4 educational system, we were there to read books, graduate, and go on to jenga taifa, “build the nation.” Amongst ourselves we saw future teachers, doctors, lawyers, pilots, and engineers; hell, I even fancied myself a potential carpenter and furniture designer – until my dear old mother sternly talked such nonsense out of me! Future woodworkers or not, death was the furthest thing in our minds. In our youth, we circumscribed illness and mortality to grannies, grandpas, and of course, someone like Mr. Mike whose alcohol addiction was evident to all. But life is such that tragedy eventually strikes. I was in class 7 when a boy from the grade ahead of me died. It was a rather short illness, I forget the prognosis, but the entire school was cloaked in mourning. After Alex’s death was announced at our morning school assembly, his classmates adopted a more somber, less cheeky, attitude. Eight graders, well aware that they were almost at the end of their primary school career, were prone to rowdy gestures and belligerent behavior. In observance of the sad loss of one on their cohort, they perceptibly toned down their bluster. Alex’s twin brother didn’t attend school for an entire week; he was home as part of the funeral preparations. At school, we too did our part. Mrs. Mureithi authorized for the school bus to ferry students to Alex’s home on the afternoon of the requiem ceremony. We arrived at about 2pm, dressed in our school uniform, and we were shown to our assigned seats in the tent set up for guests. We sang a number of songs as part of the funeral proceedings. I remember looking around in reverence, feeling a bit like a voyeur at someone else’s grief.

“Closing Day,” Or Chivalry on Display

I clearly remember the day; I think  it was in class 4. Judith had been absent most of the school term. I understood that. She could have been sick that entire time, but I simply took it as her parents were having trouble paying tuition, which at Ngong Hills Academy back in the Nineties could add up to a tidy sum. I’d been there. I got it; but my empathy did not prevent me from identifying an opportunity! With Judith at home, I suddenly had a really good shot of being top of my class. Judith and I were rivals, see. I’m not even sure she registered this, but I certainly perceived her as an enemy to my academic standing. I was happy to win in a fair fight, but if the headmistress had taken it upon herself to eliminate my arch rival, who was I to demure from ascending to victory?

End of term exams were conducted on Mondays through Wednesday, then students would stay at home on Thursday as teachers finished grading. On Friday, the whole school would get together for a phenomenon called “Closing Day.” This was a fete. A carnival. A celebration to forget the last 3 months of getting up early, scolding and spankings for unfinished homework, and to usher in the holidays. Holidays meant TV all day, including cartoons very early in the morning, and action movies late at night. The break also meant travelling to shags, the countryside, where grandparents and all kinds of extended family networks lived. My Ngong Hills compatriots and I would descend upon them every April, August, and December, eager to show off our suave manners.

The no-spanking-for-incomplete-homework thing was a pretty big deal. Teachers were notorious for corporal punishment, none more so than Mr. Mike Mwaka, RIP. Mr. Mike, was a terror. He was the music teacher, tasked with turning, and tuning, our breaking voices into melodies worthy of God’s paradise and the accompaniments of His angel’s golden harps. This was an impossible task. And to accomplish it, he’d show up to school hang over as hell, and stinking to high heaven of whatever illegal brews he’d been imbibing the previous night. Chang’aa was his rumored favorite libation, a distilled spirit that burned your lips and throat as it went down. You drank it in shots, and not too many were needed to render you positively beyond tipsy. In this frame of mind, he’d walk into in class to teach us such things as the musical instruments of Kenya, staff notation, quavers, semi-quavers, demi-semi-quavers, and hemi-demi-semi-quavers. The last are such short notes, they must be what a humming bird produces as it flies in reverse. And it didn’t end there; there were often exercises we had to take home and complete before the next lesson. He once assigned homework, on his way out of class to go for a smoke break behind the garage. Him, Mr. Kariuki, Mr Rapando, and a bunch of others would chimney it up for a few minutes between classes or during break.

Mr. Mike stepped into class the day after and thundered, “I remember, I gave you some work. If you know you haven’t finished, go to the front!” And planet earth imploded, and this marked the end of the human race. No, really; Mr. Mike’s pronouncement might as well have been the end of the world. We knew we were in for it. The class had been going particularly bad. None of our teenage brains could compute  what notes were meant to go where on the G-clef or F-clef staff notations. Woe unto us. I had tried copying homework responses from one of my buddies, but her answers were so clearly incorrect, I simply didn’t bother. I was seriously regretting that omission now, as I made my way to the front. About 12 of us ended up at the chalkboard. Mr. Mike fumed. He marched out of class towards the staff room, returning minutes later with a cane worthy of our transgressions. With our backs to him, hands holding onto the blackboard, he walked past us several times. Each time he went by you, he’d vigorously connect the electric wire switch with your back, and it stung like hell. By the end of class, given our teary eyes and the running noses, the class resembled a therapy session.

Small wonder, then, that Closing Day was such a big deal. It announced about 3 weeks during which one would be safe from Mr. Mike’s anger. Kids would arrive at school decked out for a party. The uniform code was only half-heartedly enforced. Since school ended by noon, lunch was not served. Parents would give you some cash for snacks, or you’d pack an assortment of candy, biscuits, chocolate, soda, fruit juice, and a whole host of other junk food. McDonald’s, KFCs, and Nandos might have been a decade or so into our Kenyan future, but we already knew that fast food was the way to demonstrate social status. A system of barter would then ensue, with kids swapping what they didn’t care for in their stash, for something else a parent or house help overlooked to pack. With school ending early, we could also meander off the beaten path, sometimes going into Ngong town, the opposite direction from my route home, because why not!

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As I sat down for my first exam paper in that 4th grade class, I tried not to smile too widely while relishing Judith’s absence. Clearly, this Closing Day was destined to be one that I’d remember for a long time yet. I always got a present from mother if my performance at school  was superb. And this time I was looking forward to a wrist watch. I’d projected onto that wrist watch all the macho dreams I’d picked up on TV, and come next week I’d be its proud owner. The mathematics exam sheets had just been handed out. Then we heard a knock on the door, and one of the administrative assistants in the headmistress’s office walked through. In tow was Judith, arch enemy numero uno, and a detractor of my impressive intellect. I could neither believe my eyes, nor the taste of defeat that immediately flooded my mouth! Well, Judith waltzed in after missing more than half of the school term and comfortably proceeded to trounce me. She regained her position at the top of the class. Even in my disappointment, I could do nothing but totally admire such poise!

“Closing!” was also the day when boys settled scores. This is how it worked. Say Duke pissed you off at the beginning of the term. Instead of immediately wrecking havoc to his face, you’d bide your time. You would nurse your anger and hurt pride, but indicating things were far from OK with the ominous words, “we utaniona closing!” The logic made sense. If you sought vengeance during the course of the school term, chances were high your opponent would call on his parents, plus enroll the teachers or even Mrs. Mureithi, the headmistress, to his aid. None of those outcomes were worth it. You’d be punished, and the scheme to prove your supremacy thwarted. Patiently waiting till the last day of school, however, paid off massively. There was minimal risk that your foe would call on his class teacher for help – given that the school would be completely empty, except perhaps for the security patrol. Once everybody had received their report forms, sufficiently agonized over their academic performance, and attended the last school gathering, it was open season. All rules of decorum were suspended the minute you walked out the school gate. Long forgotten slights were unburied. It was time to re-establish dominance, and there were major dividends for the kid who claimed the title of “First body.” Come next semester, boys would whisper in awe, enquiring, “Who’s first body in your class?”

Most fights would start fairly innocently, with a push, a shove, and a slightly awkward punch. Others were major sports events, complete with a PR team. The grapevine would let it be known that Leiyan and Duke would be battling it out after our final school assembly. Boys would nonchalantly saunter out the school compound, seemingly going in random directions but actually making their way to a pre-arranged destination. In some ways, these performances were extremely sad. Having excited your peer’s expectations, you couldn’t back out of the engagement simply because you had a change of heart. There was surely no easier way to kill your social rank than openly admitting to cowardice. At the very least, it was better to put in a half-hearted fight and lose in actual combat rather than slinking away, tail between your legs, leaving your opponent to crow unchallenged. No, that simply wouldn’t do. And in any case, you’d promised the boys some entertainment, and by god they’d get some! This was chivalry on display, and as a true gentleman, you were expected to punctually attend your duel, cuff your contender, or honorably get walloped. Those were your only options.

Being healthy, active teenagers, our fights lasted no more than 10 minutes. A confusion of blows and badly-aimed kicks were often followed by ear and hair pulling. This was rounded off with some wrestling, during which you aimed to tear your adversary’s school uniform. TV episodes of the North American World Wrestling Federation matches had taught us well: entertainment and showmanship counted for much more than combat skills. Unless we had managed to squirrel ourselves in a really uninhabited part of town, we were often interrupted by adults, who would break off our fights and send us packing. Usually we’d not even wait for them to get close enough for that. Brought up on a  it-takes-a-village mindset, we were apprehensive that every older member of the neighborhood would consider it their sacred duty to butt their nose into our business. Perhaps they wouldn’t, then again perhaps they would. Rather than wait to find out how far this particular individual would pursue their communal obligations, we’d scatter as soon as an adult was spotted approaching. By ill luck it might be one of our teachers, or some grown-up choleric enough to haul us in front of the school administration for tarnishing the institution’s good name. The audience was often the first to seek cover, leaving behind two poor suckers putting up a show of machismo for no one but shadows.